Interview: Director Peter Sohn Talks 'The Good Dinosaur'

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Pixar Animation Studios and preview the company's next film The Good Dinosaur. You can read what I learned about the making of The Good Dinosaur here. While at Pixar, I had that opportunity to sit down with a bunch of the creatives behind the film.

After the jump you will find my interview with director Peter Sohn, who I've talked to a few times over the years and seems like a great and talented guy. In the interview, Pete talks about some of his favorite movies he recommends to friends, the evolution of the project over the years, how he got involved as a director, his vision behind the stark contrast between the beautiful, almost photo realistic backgrounds and the cartoony characters, a scene from the film that I felt was a homage to Jaws, the 1400 kid search for the main star of this film, how directing the voice actors for the English version of Miyazaki's Ponyo helped him in making this film, and find out who directs Peter Sohn when he performs in his own film. All this and more in our Peter Sohn Good Dinosaur interview, after the jump.

Peter Sohn interview

Peter Sohn Good Dinosaur Interview

Peter Sciretta: Good to see you again, man.Peter Sohn: Good to see you. Oh you got some stuff. [referencing the bag of goodies I purchased from the Pixar Studio store]Peter Sciretta: Oh yeah, and I'm probably gonna go back. I want to start off by asking you an unusual question. And that is: is there a film that you love that most people don't know. That you like recommend people to see. Like...Peter Sohn: You mean in just general?Peter Sciretta: Just in general. It doesn't have to be from this year, or recently, and I'm not looking for something related to this film necessarily.Peter Sohn: Oh yeah. You know what, I always talk about Seven Samurai a lot. But a lot of people know that one. You're talking about an even more... One of my favorite movies of all time is Nights of Cabiria.Peter Sciretta:  That's a good one.Peter Sohn: The Fellini movie.Peter Sciretta:  Why do you like that film?Peter Sohn:  I love how he completely focused on this woman's journey and that it was not linear in a way. But it wasn't, because every decision that she made furthered the story without it becoming, you know, a formulaic path. And Giulietta Masina is spectacular and just talking about a great performance. Where everything relied on her and she goes through the gamut in that film. There are a lot of movies like that, you know, for sure. I've been recommending Mon Oncle to a lot of people lately. The Apartment, Jack Lemmon – The simple love story of that. And as an example of picking a cast against type, Fred MacMurray has always been in these kind of roles that were always like Dad, but then here he's this really kind of creepy guy in the playing of that. I don't know if that's answering what–Peter Sciretta:  This is great. When I talk to someone who I know is a film geek, I love to get a sense of like what they're into.Peter Sohn: Yeah.boy-and-dinosaur-art-600x382Peter Sciretta: This project's been in the works for a while. I remember seeing in Up special features, people notice, you know, the dinosaur drawing in the background.Peter Sohn: Which was not part of that, but yes. I remember.Peter Sciretta: Oh it wasn't part of that?Peter Sohn: No. That was for a short that someone was pitching a long time ago. It was for something else.Peter Sciretta: Oh okay. Well, how long have you been involved in the project in some capacity?Peter Sohn: Yeah. Since 2009, I, Bob Peterson first pitched this concept, the dinosaur and the boy and the dog concept. And flipping it around then. But I had worked with him on Up. And then had done a short and then he asked me to come help develop it. And it was really fun, you know, like that's when we were first drawing those first long neck dinosaurs plowing and everything. And then, connecting to that farm life, but the families working together. And we talked about that. And yeah, so it started there. And then like developing that project and then getting it to a certain place where it starts to get really complicated. The story got really like it got bifurcated where it was like a father-son story and a boy and dog story. And it was really hard to rectify it. And then... what the hell? Getting a chance to say, hey, we'd like you to do this because you have your experience of the years of working on this. And once I got it, I said I wanna honor Bob's original pitch. I would tell everyone let's focus on that boy and dog thing that he had originally gotten. So that's what the last two years has been about has been trying to get that version of the movie going. And as sincerely as we could.The Good Dinosaur behind the scenesPeter Sciretta: And you started out as an artist, but it seems like you've got pulled into voice acting and is directing something that you've wanted to do? Or it's just another thing that just kind of happened?Peter Sohn: I love directors. Growing up, finding out what they were about. I always wanted to be filmmaking for sure. But becoming a director, I don't know if that was necessarily like the dream for sure. But working in animation was always the dream. I'm a storyteller. I love telling stories. And so combining those two was an easy fit for me, but at the same time, it was terrifying as all get out. You know, I can't tell you how scary it is. Especially this place and their storied history. And what's amazing is that all these films that have been made here I can feel the pressure of it for sure. I'm not, you know, I'd be an idiot not to. But at the same time, all the people here are directors. They've made those movies and they have such a great support system. Like, you know, like where I was successful, that's great, but then where I have fallen, they're like I've fallen there too. It's okay, keep going.We're trying to do the best that we can, you know.Peter Sciretta: There's the stark contrast between the beautiful, almost photo realistic backgrounds and the cartoony characters.Peter Sohn:  Yeah, absolutely.Peter Sciretta: What was the decision behind that?Peter Sohn:  Yeah, you know what, like it all kind of focused on Arlo's main journey of him being a kind of fearful and capable character. And how to do that in a world that was the wilderness. And one of the main intents was to make nature really threatening and that you could believe that an animal could die out there. But we had the challenge of he's a dinosaur. If you put like a realistic dinosaur in the woods, eat some leaves, you're fine. You're an animal. But we really wanted to play with that twist of this is a boy out there. A dinosaur boy for sure, but trying to infuse those qualities into him that caricaturing the eyes, caricaturing his look that for me as an artist, I love pushing those kind of universal looks because he speaks a language and the dog doesn't, we would rely on those animation kind of moves and gestures that you would try to observe when you don't speak a language. And also keeping him in a world that had an arc to itself. That it would start off being beautiful and then become dangerous. When we had these designs of the trees where they were a little bit more blocky and a little bit more graphic. We put Arlo in front of it, it's like ooh that kind of is cool, but boy, it doesn't feel like it's that dangerous. Like when we get a rock stuck on him, it didn't feel like anything 'cause when we went on our research trips, boy that idea of like you can get, you could die by a small thing like having a rock on your foot. Or you could die by a huge thing like an avalanche, which we tried to kind of explore in the film. So that was one of our main intents.

Peter Sciretta: There's a scene that we saw that seemed to me like an homage to Jaws, with them sharing the battle wounds and stories. Can you talk a little about that? Was Jaws an inspiration for that?Peter Sohn: Jaws is one of my favorite movies. If it is, it must be subconsciously out there. But like yeah, it wasn't something we started talking about. In terms of Arlo's journey, like he really just wants to get out of these issues that he's got in his life. You know, experiencing loss, knowing that he is not as capable as his siblings. That he just wants to be something else. And so he meets T. Rexes that are badasses, that they are brave and they're fighters and they're strong and that he believes that to be like these guys, I just have to get rid of fear. You are the people that I want to become. Like my Father. And but then the truth of from these guys are like what are you talking about? You know, I live in fear all the time. You know, and that's part of who we are. You can't get rid of that. That's something that you need to understand. Those ideas of trying to make them be tough guys but also help Arlo learn that it's not about that, you know. It's about trying to find a way through your fears.The Good DinosaurPeter Sciretta: Okay. I wanted to talk a little bit about the voice acting in the film. I wanna know how did you find the boy to voice the main role and how did you get involved in voicing?Peter Sohn: Yeah, absolutely. Raymond Ochoa, I've never had been in a casting process like this. I directed some kids in Ponyo for the English translation of that Miyazaki film. And so there were two kids there that I had learned a lot from in terms of directing kids and what you would be looking for in a sound. But then also doing some scratch stuff for some characters here. I had learned about how directors would treat me and what they were looking for. And so there was part of that. So with Raymond knowing where we needed a character that could sound weak in the beginning, but then sound strong at the end. But also be at that age which is a very dangerous age for recording, where you're at the cusp of becoming an adult. And so we're trying to find that voice that didn't...Peter Sciretta: Especially when you're recording over the course of years.Peter Sohn: Exactly. Exactly right. And so we needed to know, we needed to start at a certain age so that no, he wouldn't be in that danger area. And so there would, we went through about 1400 kids looking for that. Most of them always sound like they're eight or nine. Even though they may be 10 or 11. But then we found Raymond who had kind of an older sounding voice. He could be emotional... one of the early test sequences we did was the sequence that we showed yesterday, the one where Arlo's talking about his family Now there's not a lot of lines in it, but the lines are impactful. And where he goes, I miss my family. And then I remember Raymond recording it in front of us and like I miss my family. And he really felt it and it's like oh my God, I'm getting goose bumps in here. Okay, and his voice doesn't sound like a young kid, but it's almost there. How close to that there is there? And then he goes, I miss them later about his Father and he really got us. He pulled everyone in and it was amazing. And I was like this is the kid. Oh my goodness. I hope his voice isn't gonna change. There's always that thing of you're kind of chubby and you like to eat garbage, you're that guy. Okay? That's just my voice and squishy, like you're this sincere guy that's kind of innocent. You're that guy. And then like oh okay. Hi, you know, Sulley and that's the way you're playing your voice. But here when we were pitching this guy, we always wanted to have a character that was kind of the end of the line Arlo. A version of Arlo that would be the other end. Like if he lived out there scared of everything, what would he kind of become? And so we were always pitching this crazy guy out in the woods. And so they were like okay, you're doing it. I'm like no, no, no, we'll find someone that can do that. Then you keep pitching it. You're doing it. And so they're like you're doing it. And like okay, I'll do it.Peter Sciretta: But you being the director, who decides you're doing it?Peter Sohn: Oh John Lasseter. John Lasseter directed me in some of those moments too. John would be like okay, do it again. No, no, no, get deeper, get gravellier. Okay, do that and so it was really great fun to for him. These are great questions, Peter, 'cause I feel like these are all, I've never answered these.Peter Sciretta: Thank you Peter, I can't wait to see how this all turns out!