Andrew Stanton Gives Up the Goods on WALL-E and JOHN CARTER to Capone!
Published at: June 24, 2008, 7:48 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Hey all. Capone in Chicago here. I know I'm under an embargo from published my full-blown review of the latest Pixar/Disney animated wonderment known as WALL*E, but I will say that the only thing greater than watching WALL*E for the first time is getting to talk to its writer-director Andrew Stanton within 24 hours of having seen the movie. This conversation could have easily gone on for an hour or longer, and that would have been fine by me. Not only does the film evoke the finest elements of classic sci-fi stories and films, but Stanton is just a really easy, fun guy to talk to on all subjects.
If you are a stickler about averting your eyes from spoilers, I'd go ahead and consider this entire interview one big SPOILER. I'm not saying that every question and/or answer is loaded with critical, secretive information, but Stanton does reveal a few things about the film that have yet to be revealed in any trailers, and with good reason. Please do not go into this film thinking it's a film for children. Kids will enjoy the sights and sounds, for sure, but there is a depth to WALL*E that sets it apart not just from all other Pixar works, but all other Disney films.
Stanton is one of Pixar's old guard, having had a hand in the story or screenplay of both TOY STORY films, A BUG'S LIFE, and MONSTERS, INC. He also co-wrote/co-director the Oscar winning FINDING NEMO. And as he'll talk about more in our conversation, Stanton is just about set to lock himself in a room and work on the screenplay for his next project, the long in development adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' JOHN CARTER OF MARS. More on that at the end of the interview. For now, just enjoy the marvelous musings of Andrew Stanton.
Andrew Stanton: Hello.
Capone: Hey Andrew. How's it going?
AS: Are you Capone?
AS: Wow. Sorry I don't get to meet you face to face so I can place a face with you from now on.
Capone: I know you talked to Quint a little while back.
AS: I did. He and Harry are the only two I've ever met.
Capone: I'm deeply saddened we couldn't meet face to face. [Andrew was supposed to be in Chicago, but his flight was canceled and his travel plans subsequently changed.]
AS: I'm so sorry. I had such travel problems yesterday.
Capone: It's probably good that you're not here. I might be tempted to hug you after seeing this film.
AS: Hmmm, maybe it is good [laughs].
Capone: Seriously, though, the film is magnificent. Harry called me the day after the Austin screening and just to tell me that I had no idea what I was in for.
AS: [laughs] Wow, that's really awesome. We keep saying at Pixar, "These are our people; we love them."
Capone: And we're doing a screening in Chicago next week, and I could not be more excited.
AS: Really?! I'm glad. We thought if anybody could appreciate how much we were trying to grab the spirit of all our favorite movies from the '70s, you guys would catch it.
Capone: I think you're right. I think it's fair to say that this is Pixar's most photorealistic effort to date.
AS: Yeah, and it wasn't to try and show off or anything, because I have no interest in trying to trick anybody or try to conquer something. It was more like, I know that the most charming this character will be is based on how much you believe that box is really there in space in the dust, and you'll be that much more charmed when it comes to life if you really believe in the existence of that little metal box. So that's why I pushed everything as close as I could to that.
Capone: Honestly, I did forget that I was watching something animated until probably the first human that appears in the film.
AS: That's the best compliment I could get, because everything we've ever tried has been to make you forget where you are, because that's what I want out of any movie that I watch. I just want to forget where I am and be completely enthralled and seduced.
Capone: I'm always fascinated by the little choices that you guys make in your films, and using the HELLO DOLLY clips.
AS: That's the oddest choice I'll ever make in my career.
Capone: Do you have some great affection for the film version of that musical?
AS: It didn't come right away. I really wanted old-fashioned music against space. I just knew that would be a great juxtaposition of the future and the past to start the movie with. And this is going as far back as 2002 that I had that thought. And then TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE came out, which I loved. And here's this great pantomime movie that's using all the French swing music, which is what I originally had there, so I was like, "Well, I can't use that now." But it was the best thing that could have happened because it forced me to look a little deeper at other old-fashioned songs, and I started going into standards, which led me to musicals. I did enough musical theater to know what the staples are, like "Fiddler on the Roof," "Guys and Dolls," things like that. And I got into playing "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," and that first phrase out there, without making any sense, just fit. And I was like, "Wow, what a great start." And I thought, "This is the oddest thing I've ever come up with," and I turned to my wife and said, "I'm going to get asked for the rest of my life why I chose this if I do this."
But I just couldn't drop it, but I kind of kept it as a private little choice until I could justify why. And I told my co-writer Jim Reardon about it, and he was like, "Well, the song is about these two guys who are naive, and they've never left this small town and they just want to go out and experience life for one night and kiss a girl." And I was like, "Gosh, this is WALL*E." And he said, "Well, maybe he found that movie in the trash." And then we started looking at the movie, and when I saw the two lover holding hands on that other song ["It Only Takes a Moment"], this huge light bulb went off, and I said, "That's how WALL*E can say I love you, because he can't say it." And that was such a gift from the heavens, that idea; I had to use it, it was fate, and I'll put up with answering that question for the rest of my life.
Capone: You mentioned that the idea of robots starting to think invites comparisons to certain science fiction books and films, but to me watching a film without traditional dialog for most of the film, I'm thinking about Chaplin, Keaton, and other great silent films. TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE is a great example of someone else who has utilized that in recent years.
AS: We watched every single Chaplin and Keaton movie--I'm not kidding--we watched every single one of them. We watched one of their films--whether it was a shorter film or a feature--every day for lunch for about a year and a half. We would be as aware of these two masters of the craft, and you walk away from that realizing that there's nothing you can't tell visually. These guys were the masters. You walked away with the courage to face anything and say, "There's a way to solve this if we're not communicating it." And you were saddened by...it's true when sound came in, part of that art form was lost.
Capone: Did you lift anything in particular from those films?
AS: No, I would never dare to do that. I'd like to think that we're savvy enough that we can come up with out own gags. You see it all the time, though, unconsciously you get inspired, you pull in things. But hopefully it's just indirect enough that you've made it your own. The thing that I was definitely aware of was that there was this weird amalgamation, whereas WALL*E was this combination of those two guys, because in a way, WALL*E is the great stone face, like Buster Keaton. Technically, there's no expression changing on his face, but you feel like it has, which Keaton was a master at. But Chaplin was a softy and a romantic, and you definitely get that from the inner part of WALL*E. So it was this weird combo.
Capone: So it had always been the intention to have these limited noise exchanges between the robots?
AS: From day one, from '94 on. That was part of the attraction of the conceit. We said, God, it would be so cool to watch a character like in LUXO JR., where it's just charming because of how it's designed and the way it movie, and you're almost compelled to throw a character and a thinking process on it because of how well it moves in its design. And I would love to watch an entire feature with characters like that. But in 1994, without having proven to ourselves that we could even do TOY STORY, we didn't have a ton of confidence that we could pull off something like that or they would let us make something like that. So it just kind of went to wayside.
Capone: You mention LUXO JR., the wordlessness of the film is very much like the Pixar shorts, in which there's almost never any dialog.
AS: It's not that uncommon in animation to give life to inanimate objects and to use sounds as the way that they speak. It's just uncommon to see it in a feature-length movie. And I think that's the only that to us, animation aficionados, seems the new frontier to have done. In my mind, there's dialog from frame one in this movie. We just keep using unconventional ways of speaking for WALL*E; he speaks differently than EVE. She has her own different language. And we use dialog indirectly, things out of movies, sound clips. We're always trying to make you use that part of your brain that interprets dialog; it's just in a different way.
Capone: Did I see something in the credits about an ATARI computer being used to generate voices for this film?
AS: I may be incorrect, but they may just be giving credit to the Pong game we show.
Capone: I thought I saw something about voice generation in there.
AS: Oh, that. We used the Apple program MacTalk for Auto. I didn't want any human element. I wanted Auto to be the epitome of a robot, cold, zeros & ones, calculating, and soulless. So that sort of Stephen Hawkings kind of voice I thought was perfect.
Capone: I'm glad that you guys have kept this aspect of the film quiet, and any reviewer that spoils this aspect of the film should be shot. People are going to freak a little when they see your vision of human kind in the future.
AS: Most sci-fi doesn't deal with how humanity has gone to a happy place. Most sci-fi deals--directly or indirectly--with some misdirection or misstep with mankind or society. And I didn't want to do that gratuitously. I didn't really care so much for the specifics of humanity for a long time. All I cared about was making these two robots fall in love. But I knew that I wanted it on the backdrop of humanity, and I knew that I wanted the byproduct of them falling in love to improve the world or improve the universe. So I wanted to make sure that whatever I chose, which could be anything for "where does humanity go?"--how Orwellian or how Aldous Huxley are you going to go?--I wanted it to amplify the theme, and the theme for me was, A rational love defeats life's programming. It takes a random act of love or kindness to break you out of your routine or your rut, and you literally have these two main characters who are programmed. And at least one of them at first is fighting to understand what is the point of living. I thought that's not a bad metaphor for aspects of humanity today.
We can so easily-- more so than we use to although I think it's a human thing to do regardless of technology--distract ourselves with habits and routines to the point that it's actually helping us avoid contact with another person or furthering a relationship or dealing with another person. And you feel it all the time. You can be in a group of people out in a public square or on a bus, and everybody is in our own little world, and everything is an indirect way of dealing with another person. You can almost feel it. There has got to be a loss for that. I thought, what if technology got so advanced that everything that makes us have to get up and survive has been figured out--longevity, health, food. So all you're doing is living in a perpetual vacation for all life with not point of living. So I thought that perfectly put humanity in a state where it would only help WALL*E look like he's the only person or the only thing truly living in the universe. And that's why I picked everything that way.
Capone: I saw the film yesterday afternoon, and last night I was at a concert where there were seats, and there were literally people sitting next to each other, who had come there together, that were on their Blackberries before the show, and I thought, "Holy crap!"
AS: Yes! It's not going to happen; it's happening! [laughs] We are there, it's just not as obvious.
Capone: Blackberries require more work than your version of humanity, because we actually have to use our fingers to type. What a pain!
AS: It's like when you walk past your TV six times to look for the remote and you could have just touched the volume or the power button. That's pretty much where we're at.
Capone: It is a great story about man and robots rediscovering the essence of humanity. Were there any particular science fiction trappings that were were committed to avoiding or embracing?
AS: The only thing I tried to embrace directly was the production value and feel and the cinematic approach to movies of the '70s that were sci fi. For me, it's like comfortable shoes, it's nostalgic, it's going back to the Golden Age of seeing movies for me in my formative years. I really do a lot of specific analysis about the type of cameras that were used, the type of lens packages that were used, lighting. I didn't steal directly from anything, but I did try and get the gestalt of that.
Capone: You had a nice lens flare at the beginning, I remember that.
AS: Yeah, little things like that. As a matter of fact, we studied all the imperfections that came with those specific kinds of lenses on 70mm Panavision cameras and Aeroflex cameras, and we really did apply that to the film. I kept saying to my production crew, I want it to feel like we found WALL*E in a can of film somewhere and it was actually made in the '70s, and we just remastered it or restored it. That was really a conscious goal. I'm a big believer of just letting things organically fall into place. One of the advantages of working on a movie for four years is that you can kind of be patient and keep trying different things, trying on different shoes, and see what fits. As long as it comes in that way, I don't care how direct or indirect I end up looking like I've touched other things.
Capone: I noticed that you worked with some pretty prominent futurists and legends in sci-fi filmmaking to map out your view of the future. Can you talk about working with them?
AS: Yeah, it's hard not be become a complete fanboy and be unprofessional the entire time I met those guys. [Sound designer] Ben Burt [who also does the voice of WALL*E] was probably the toughest, because soundwise, he just inspired everything. He was key because after two years working on the film with him...let's just say it was the smartest decision I ever made was to cast him as a large part of the cast because I really did end up incorporating 25 years of knowledge and leveraging off of that the minute he came on the film. I just sort of let him do his thing and then slowly guide him toward what I was looking for. So he became a Pixar employee and part of the crew; it wasn't a consultation kind of thing with Ben; he was a major factor in this film. Both Denis and Roger were short-term consultation issues.
[Visual effects master] Dennis Muren was with us a little bit longer--a couple of months and he's such a master from the live-action side of integration effects. And what he's got a natural eye for and what makes him so good is that he knows how to blend things just right so that it's seamless. And he's got an encyclopedia of rules of why things work and what are the imperfections of life that you're trying to mimic. And so we were trying to work from the opposite end of trying to make you feel that the CG world we were working in were just a little bit more familiar and believable, and see how much we could pull from his knowledge and pull into our film. So that was several months of consultation on that, particularly with the stuff on the earth because that was the most familiar territory, where as out in space, it was a little bit easier for the computer to do clean, clinical antiseptic backgrounds and very reflective. That wasn't so hard to master. [Cinematographer] Roger Deakins was the shortest time we were with. First he came on a weekend to give us this workshop that he does, a sort of Cinematographer 101. And that was so inspiring that we asked him to stay for a couple more weeks, and we ended up showing how we work. It was a real inspiration and gave us a boost of how to approach camerawork and lighting, and we'd sort of overcomplicated it for ourselves. And he has a very simplistic way of looking at things, but deceivingly simple. And it was great; it was a real inspiration.
Capone: Speaking of imperfections, I'd been seeing this in the trailer for months now--the one scene with the shopping carts chasing WALL*E. The camerawork in that shot looks so much like hand-held stuff, and you use that a couple of times in the film, and I thought that was terrific and it's so different than anything Pixar has done in the past. Why did you think that was the right look for those parts of the film?
AS: To be honest, we went overboard and did that all over the place, and we kind of had to get pulled back because it was drawing attention to itself. And so we do it subtly everywhere, but we only picked a couple key places to keep it that overt because it just really worked for the moment. I wanted everything to feel like you were a fly on the wall and this was really happening. Again, it was all to support the idea that this box was there and it's really coming to life so that it would be as charming as possible. Also, we're also huge fans of "Battlestar Galactica," and we were seeing a lot of that BLACK HAWK DOWN, military-style, documentary-style camerawork where they just go for it without any explanation or any logic, and it works. And to see somebody to push it to that extreme gave you confidence knowing that there's some nice middle ground for this film.
Capone: During the course of production, what were some of the more dramatic turns made in the plot or the visuals? I've always been curious to see how you guys work.
AS: It's like making movie in slow motion, but it's like rock time: you wouldn't really notice things move in the short time that you're there. [laughs] The biggest evolution the film took was the state of humanity. I started out with the idea that everything would be abstract in the film vocally, almost like a PLANET OF THE APES conceit, that we would have lost the sense of who we are so much that the language had sort of changed. And also, I was so enamored by something that NASA consultants had told me that if you send a man into space and you don't have gravity figured out just right that disuse atrophy is going to kick in and you're going to start losing your bones and become a big blob. So I literally made humanity something that had evolved into big blobs of Jell-O; they were almost see-through like big slabs of Jell-O, and it was pretty funny and really bizarre. And the whole film was this test of could you understand what people were saying, and I clearly had bit off more than I could chew. And the film took a silly turn rather than a sci-fi turn when you went to space.
So I realized I had to sort of pull it back because that storyline almost played out like PLANET OF THE APES, where humans didn't find out they were human until the end of the film, where they find out they're descendants of the earth. So, slowly over time I slowly pulled back until I brought humanity back to what I like to call "big babies," where there is this nascent quality to us. There's actually a term for it: Neoteny [I've also seen it spelled Neotiny and Neotany--Capone]. There's no reason for the body to evolve to a full adult state, because survival is not asking that of you any more. It knows you don't have to get up and plant the fields or go to the grocery store to pick out food. It knows you're just going to be sitting there, so why push you past the baby stage? That's where that all came from, this sort of reverse evolution. It's fascinating to see everybody's first reaction, "Oh my God, that's us now!" with the obesity issue. I knew that I was skirting into the same territory, but it came from a whole other direction
Capone: People are definitely going to point to WALL*E's deeper meanings. Do you remember the first time you saw a deeper meaning in a science fiction film?
AS: One of the first movies I remember seeing that was that kind of sci fi was PLANET OF THE APES, but I don't think I appreciated a lot of social statements that were made until I got older. Before it was just like, Cool, it's apes! [laughs] And that was enough to get me though the film several times in my youth. But I did start to notice that all sci-fi films, at least the good ones, tend to tap into larger issues.
Capone: Give me some titles of films that revved you up as a youngster.
AS: It's probably a standard list now, especially with you guys. But these are the films that really rocked my world, that I was sort of making an amalgamation of when I was making this film. It started with 2001, STAR WARS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, SILENT RUNNING, even STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. I'll even include OUTLAND, I don't care what you guys say [laughs]. I'll even put out CAPRICORN ONE; there, I'll put that out there. I was just a huge fan of these movies. And not the movie but the effects of BLACK HOLE I loved. For me, it felt like a promise that within 12 months, you were going to get another great movie that sent you out there.
Capone: SILENT RUNNING is a title that comes up frequently when talking about WALL*E.
AS: In a weird way, it's sort of the pre-R2D2. It was the first one in the modern-day cinema to show you the appeal of a robot that wasn't designed to look like anything, it was designed to look like a character, but you were compelled to throw a character onto it, which to me is the same thing that made LUXO JR. so appealing. You see it completely as an appliance, but because of its design, the minute it moves, you can't help but make it seem like a character. To me, that's pretty powerful and it's way more powerful than a robot that's trying to look like a character.
Capone: What did the Pixar gang think of Fox's ROBOTS?
AS: Um, fortunately we knew that was being made. Chris Wedge and Blue Sky Studios we're friends with, and I was in the early stages of thinking about doing this when it was already midway through two-third though production, so I wasn't too worried that there was going to be any scheduling crossover at all--there would be several years between. And I was very relieved to find out that they were going in a direction that I wasn't; it was almost the opposite direction I was going. I remember saying to my crew, there are two camps that you can put robots in in the history of robots. They are either the Tin Man, where they're human with metal skin or they're a machine, and you see a character in it. And I'm going for the left one; I'm going for the machine. And I'm not interested in the Tin Man thing. And fortunately they were going the Tin Man route.
Capone: Were there any fundamentally different element to the production process between FINDING NEMO and WALL*E?
AS: No, everybody's just better at their job now and hopefully a little less mistakes. But because we're always doing something new, it always seem as hard as the last one. But there wasn't a big difference.
Capone: Are you planning to make this JOHN CARTER OF MARS your next film?
AS: That's the movie I'm doing!
Capone: That's what I thought, but that film has changed hands so much...
AS: I know, and I'm hoping I'm not on that list. We want to make these shirts that say, "Break the curse." I have been a fan of those books since I was 10, and I've watched vicariously from the sidelines as it has gone from studio to studio since I was in college in the '80s. And just as fan, wanting to see it be made, and praying to God it would be done right. I thought it was truly going to get done by Jon Favreau, and the minute it fell apart, I couldn't believe it. And the timing was just right with my schedule, and I said, "I don't know, this is crazy but I'm going to see if we can get it." And here we are. Believe me, if it doesn't fall apart for other reasons, I'm going to do it right, because I have been a huge fan of those books.
Capone: When does that really get going for you?
AS: Mark Andrews and I are writing it together; he was the head of story on RATATOUILLE and THE INCREDIBLES. I like to say I'm a little big country, he's a little bit rock and roll. We make a great combo together, and we're just spending this year writing. We've learned from the Pixar methodology: don't get distracted about how and all these things everybody else wants to ask; just make a great story and everything else wants to fall into place. So all the other specifics we aren't even going to decide upon until next year, once we have a script that we think is worth making.
Capone: Does that include whether the film is animated or live action?
AS: That's what we don't want to decide until next year. And believe me, we're not going say, "Oh, it's a Pixar film, so it's got to be G-rated." We're going to do what's right for the movie and then we'll find the right way to distribute it.
Capone: I'm very excited to see how that comes together.
AS: I am too. [laughs]
Capone: Andrew, thank you so much for talking.
AS: Good talking to you, Capone. Thanks man.