Interview: Andrew Stanton

A couple weeks ago I got the chance to enter the Pixar Animation Studios campus in Emmeryville to interview Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton about his latest film WALL-E. When Stanton entered the room he told me that he reads /Film “all the time”, how cool is that? A big portion of our conversation was devoted to talking about his favorite films and cinematic influences, you can read that segment in our Movie Playlist: Andrew Stanton column. Enjoy!

Andrew Stanton: Did you get to see it here?

Peter Sciretta: No, I saw it last week in the city.

Andrew Stanton: Oh, OK, cool. Digital? No, yes. Digital?

Peter Sciretta: No, it was actually weird because it was misframed at first and they had to fix the projection during Presto.

Andrew Stanton: Oh shhh – your worst fear.

Peter Sciretta: Yeah, but it was fixed in time for “Out There…” (the beginning of WALL-E)…. One of the things I noticed, right away with Wall-E is, sure – he’s cute, he’s instantly cute to any viewer. Your instantly attached to him, but he’s also very functional. As a robot, everything about him is so functional, so what came first the chicken or the egg?

Andrew Stanton: Well yeah, it was kind of in tandem. We knew what we wanted his functions to be before we knew what he would look like, and when we were first boarding the – I sort of in the year that I was supposed to be just on vacation and thinking about what I wanted to do, I actually was here under the radar sneaking, doing the first act, because I knew it would raise a lot of questions and debate about whether I could do a film like this and I just didn’t want to go there. I just wanted to prove it, so I had to design something, so I very early on came up with the idea of him being a box, and Eve being a circle, and that was very masculine feminine and then we knew we wanted him to compact trash and stuff so we just gave him little treads and the binoculars came a couple of months later. I was starting to realize that was a much stronger way to play the face because binoculars already have a sort of character to them. They can have all this expression because of the hinge down the center so I kind of had those basic conceits (sic) about it but once we – once that shorthand worked in the boarding of it, then we spent much longer time actually designing it and doing I guess the equivalent of blueprints and getting all the engineering correct, because we thought it would be really cool if we could truly make this work, and the other thing we lie about is sort of the Tardis effect where like all his parts can go into that box. We’re definitely lying about the physics of that, but outside of that everything actually functions, there’s no cheating, I mean he, how the parts slide out, and the rails his arms run on and the extension of things, it’s all very accurate. We felt that we wanted on a much more intricate level the same design quality that was with Luxo. Luxo just felt like it was built to do its job and you feel like you’re working within the constraints of how he’s designed and there’s something just about the initial design of him that just evokes a personality. You actually want to throw a character on to it, even though it’s all designed just for its function and so we wanted Wall-E to be the very same kind of thing but on a much more intricate – so yeah, and then Eve came based on Wall-E, I mean it was really an opposite of Wall-E, yeah.

Peter Sciretta: One thing you notice immediately while watching the film… Hello Dolly, its just so incredible…

Andrew Stanton: Frame One. Yeah.

Peter Sciretta: How did that come about?

Andrew Stanton: It was a very circuitous route, I knew from the git-go I wanted this film to feel different and I knew that starting with old fashioned music over the image of space would help that, and I just loved the introduction of the world like that of the movie and just everything, because to me it was more of an abstract representation of what Wall-E’s hope and dreams were just like me. It must be beautiful out there and he’s got this sort of appreciation for the past, so I loved that thematic start. But you can pick – you know there are so many old-fashioned songs, and I just didn’t know which ones to pick, and I constantly road tested a bunch, and then I started looking at standards. A lot of standards come from musicals. I started looking at musicals. I did some musical theater so I knew lots of the standard plays like Fiddler on the Roof and Godspell, things like that, Guys and Dolls, and I eventually got to Hello Dolly and that one song, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” starts with that phrase “out there” and it just fit, I mean I couldn’t justify the rest of the lyrics but it just kind of fit and I just kept finding myself drawn to putting it on again and again and after a while I started to realize the reason I think I liked it even more was because the point of this music, of that song is that it’s about two guys that are so naive that live in a small town and all they want to do is go out to the big wide world for one night and kiss a girl and to me that was Wall-E and he just wanted to experience life and so it just exudes such, almost stereotypical musical naitivté, of just the point of life and stuff that I just thought it was perfect and so I looked at other songs in the movie and then when I stumbled across “It Only Takes A Moment” and saw the two lovers holding hands I realized that was perfect device for Wall-E to express how he loves somebody without being able to say that phrase, so when those dropped on my lap, I was like, I gotta use it.

Peter Sciretta: Well, holding hands has been somewhat of a theme for you. In Finding Nemo, there was obviously that part with the fin…

Andrew Stanton: Yeah, well honestly I think it’s just a universal image, I mean it’s the most intimate thing you can do in public in any culture is hold hands and usually it’s also a representation of advanced of a relationship, you know, usually you don’t do it unless you’re getting more serious with someone that you’re dating with and things like that. So I thought it was a pretty powerful symbol.

Peter Sciretta: I saw recently in a Brazilian trailer of Wall-E where they go to watch the TV and it’s not Hello Dolly and the TV it’s a pirated copy of the

Andrew Stanton: That’s Ratatouille. Oh yeah that’s actually a campaign that’s used in certain countries; they’ve got one in England I think and they’ve got one in Brazil and there might be another country – where these actually run like commercials in theaters, they use a current movie and they try to impress upon the audience and educate them about not pirating.

Peter Sciretta: Oh, so that’s not actually in the movie?

Andrew Stanton: No, no no, that’s an actual ad that they use footage from the movie. Yeah.

Peter Sciretta: That’s interesting. I wonder what kind of films influenced Wall-E?

Andrew Stanton: Pretty much it’s the overall amalgamation of sci-fi movies that I saw from the late sixties to the early eighties, it’s sort of a mishmash of just how they all felt to me, I mean they were all very different, they’re all over the map, but there was just, I don’t know I just felt like I was – from 2001 on I always felt like I was in good hands when the next great sci-fi film came and it always felt like you were guaranteed there was one coming either the next year or the year after that, you know, then because you had films like Star Wars, and then you had Alien and then Blade Runner and Close Encounters, and Silent Running and you can even go back a little earlier and go to Planet of the Apes, I mean there were just I don’t know they all were so awe inspiring, I just believed and I was so transported in each of those movies to whatever worlds and whatever characters were involved and I just loved it, I couldn’t get enough of it, and I kind of felt like that went away, like somewhere in the late eighties into the nineties, I just wasn’t feeling like that anymore or I don’t know if they were making movies like that anymore.

Peter Sciretta: I think sci-fi films have turned into genre films and it’s funny you mention all those movies, most of them have a great sci-fi idea at the core, like Wall-E. Where a lot of recent sci-fi films have become simpler.

Andrew Stanton: Possibly, yeah, I mean they’re all over the map, all I know is that I felt transported in each of them and it felt in a specific kind of cinematic way and heck, I even loved Outland, you know, I was just you know, and I just wanted – I remember telling my crew when initially I was bringing them on. My D.P.s I said, and my Production Designer, I said, I want it to feel like we found Wall-E, the movie in a film can and it was made in the seventies and we just soft unearthed it and re-mastered it, so I said, I know that’s kind of an abstract thing, but that’s what I’m shooting for and then we just did a lot of analysis of what that meant, you know, down to like the kind of cameras and lenses that were used commonly on those movies and things like that.

Peter Sciretta: With Monster Inc. there was Mike’s car, with Ratatouille you had my friend the rat, is there going to be something for the DVD for WALL-E?

Andrew Stanton: There is. There’s going to be a sci-fi short that’s very connected to Wall-E that we were very conscious of making sure was produced at the same time as the film and I think people will be pleasantly pleased.

Peter Sciretta: Does it have a name or?

Andrew Stanton: I don’t think I’m allowed to announce it, am I? I don’t think so. The short for the DVD I don’t think I’m allowed to announce it.

Peter Sciretta: OK, that’s fine.

Andrew Stanton: I gotta give you something to talk about when you come back a couple of months from now.

Peter Sciretta: Oh, totally. It seems like all Pixar films, like after Wall-E are going to be in 3-D what’s

Andrew Stanton. I think that I don’t think that’s – I don’t know if that’s mandatory. I think it’s being considered

Peter Sciretta: Well, all the ones that have been announced right?

Andrew Stanton: Yeah, it’s being considered I think just because there’s expectations that there will always be a certain amount of theaters that can make that possible to see the film in 3-D so we have to consider that to some degree.

Peter Sciretta: Was there ever consideration of making Wall-E 3-D?

Andrew Stanton: There was but to be honest, it got shot down pretty early because it was so difficult to use all ouir brainpower and efforts just to figure out how to tell a non-dialog department to film that – my brain and crew couldn’t handle also being considerate of how 3-D would work because if you really want to be true to 3-D then you’re going to frame and shoot the film a little differently and we didn’t have the resources or the inclination to do a second version of the movie just to put – and I didn’t want to add that limitation at the same time as trying to make this movie, so it was just too much.

Peter Sciretta: Will we ever see Finding Nemo in 3-D?

Andrew Stanton: I don’t know I think that they’ve got some pretty successful post-processes to doing 3-D so you may see any or all of the movies in 3-D at some point you know.

Peter Sciretta: I don’t see why not, they’re so –

Andrew Stanton: But those are the discussions that frankly, I’m not really a part of.

Peter Sciretta: Okay, sure. Could there ever be a Wall-E sequel now that humanity has been touched with…

Andrew Stanton: Oh, I’m sure. Sadly there can always be a sequel. It just depends on whether it should be a sequel, and you know, personally I don’t think I’ll be involved in any sequel soon just because I’m, you know, you spend four years on these things and you’re ready to move on. I’m done with fish, and now I’m done with robots and I love these characters. You try to make them so endearing that you won’t mind seeing them again, but there isn’t anything in the works right now like it wasn’t pre-planned to have a sequel, no.

Peter Sciretta: That’s understandable. Roger Deakins. Could you talk about him. Like I didn’t know he was part of this film until very recently.

Andrew Stanton: For a – he would be very self-effacing and say, oh, I was only here for a couple of weeks and I had nothing to do with it, but the truth is that he was very inspiring. We initially brought him up just because we heard he gave an all-day seminar for a sort of cinematography 101 for how to shoot and light and so we just wanted to sort of educate. We’re always trying to educate ourselves a little bit farther and so we invited him up for the weekend and he gave a small class to my crew and we enjoyed it so much we asked, would you mind staying around for a couple of weeks on consulting and he didn’t know at all how we approached making movies so he literally sat in and shadowed for several weeks what my lighting D.P. did and what my camera D.P. did and it became very influential just to see his – you know, just to break it down how his thought process works, how he looked at stuff and what it was he was trying to achieve. We were certainly over-complicating the process, you know, he’s a very – it’s a very simple thing that he’s going for. But it was very inspiring.

Peter Sciretta: All the Pixar movies, there’s that repeat viewing thing that you were talking about with Lawrence of Arabia where you notice things, new things all the time. What are some of the things that I – that people won’t notice the first time around watching Wall-E?

Andrew Stanton: I don’t know it’s hard for me to guess what you will and won’t notice. We certainly try to make everything count. Like we don’t want to put anything in gratuitously, like homages for instance, we do very few and when they do, we usually make sure that they’re organic to the process, that they’re not standing out. We always try to slip in little nods to other films that we’ve done, or will be doing here and there, so there’s definitely a lot of items in Wall-E’s truck and so we take advantage of putting a couple of things in there that are worth your second viewing, third viewing. We’re always paying attention to anything that’s going on in the background whether it’s in the sets or in the extras, anything that’s going on just so that if you happen to find yourself straying and look in there there’s something but that’s about the extent of it.

Peter Sciretta: So the pizza planet car,

Andrew Stanton: That’s in there. Oh yeah, all the staples, like A-113 is obvious in this film. It’s the most obvious we’ve ever made it. John Ratzenberger is probably pretty obvious and the Pizza Planet actually has a very obvious shot, it’s just probably so quick people aren’t paying attention to it.

Peter Sciretta: Really?

Andrew Stanton: Yeah. It’s right in your face. It really is right in your face.

Peter Sciretta: And you’re working on John Carter of Mars, right now, what book is that. What book are you adapting?

Andrew Stanton: It’s the first book, Princes of Mars.

Peter Sciretta: It seems like that’s a lot more violent…

Andrew Stanton: It is.

Peter Sciretta: The cover of one of the books has nudity –

Andrew Stanton: How are we going to deal with that?

Peter Sciretta: Is that going to be a departure for Pixar?

Andrew Stanton: [laughs] you know, there’s been no discussion about exactly how it won’t be distributed or what moniker it will be under. Everything is going to be derived based on whatever we end up with script-wise, so this whole year is just about the script. In 2009 will be much more involved in the OK, exactly how is this going to get made? And exactly how are we going to present it? Nobody is worrying about that until there’s a script.

Peter Sciretta: OK, one last question. Unrelated to John Carter at all. Are you interested in directing live action?

Andrew Stanton: Well, I certainly have to keep that an option because that’s one of the avenues on the table that could exist and I’ve certainly enjoyed doing it on the little that I did for Wall-E it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to shoot something the same day and be done. I mean I know all the same amount of planning and aggravation and there’s a whole different hell to it, but I definitely got the bug of it on it, so it’s one of the options.

Peter Sciretta: Very cool. And I will let you go. Thank you very much for your time.

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