'Cars 3' Interview: Pixar Writers Discuss Story Changes, 'Cars' Origins, Influences & More

In just a couple weeks, Disney will unleash Pixar Animation's latest sequel Cars 3 in theaters. The film will undoubtedly be a box office behemoth thanks to the massive group of young fans who can't get enough of the anthropomorphic vehicles who may or may not have caused some kind of human apocalypse.

We've already featured a few stories about Cars 3, including our reaction to seeing roughly half the movie, the introduction of the outstanding new character Cruz Ramirez, and an interview with the film's first-time director, Brian Fee. Now we have an interview with the writing team behind this sequel.

To set the stage, here's the official synopsis for Cars 3:

Blindsided by a new generation of blazing-fast racers, the legendary Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is suddenly pushed out of the sport he loves. To get back in the game, he will need the help of an eager young race technician, Cruz Ramirez (voice of Cristela Alonzo), with her own plan to win, plus inspiration from the late Fabulous Hudson Hornet and a few unexpected turns. Proving that #95 isn't through yet will test the heart of a champion on Piston Cup Racing's biggest stage!

As part of Pixar's Cars 3 press day back at the end of March, we had the chance to sit down with story supervisor Scott Morse (storyboard artist on Cars 2, WALL-E, Ratatouille and more), Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, The Rookie, Secretariat), Kiel Murray (Cars) and Bob Peterson (Up, Finding Nemo). Here's what came from that interview.

The way Pixar movies are made, there are a lot of changes during the entire process. What are some of the biggest differences between what the movie was when it was early in development compared to what we'll see in theaters? Director Brian Fee already told us that Cruz Ramirez used to be a male farmer...

[Entire writing team laughs]

Scott Morse: He's at that point.

Bob Peterson: A farmer?! I've never heard of that.

Mike Rich: That's the first I've heard of that.

Kiel Murray: That's so funny. I remember that. Farmer is kind of a weird word, but he was in a farming family. The film was set in California. So it's a lot different.

Mike: You know what might be easier, is the stuff that stuck. Because I wrote my first script and it went to storyboards in spring of 2015. We had Lightning McQueen with his dilemma that we talked about. We had him going on a journey. We had Cruz. But all of these characters, on a scale of 1 to 10, were just a 1 or a 2 compared to where they needed to be.

So was it always a Lightning McQueen comeback story where he has to find himself as the world changes around him?

Kiel: I think comeback came with [Mike].

Mike: Yeah, it did come with me. It was always McQueen searching for himself, because he's confronted with that first moment where he's going "Oh my gosh, I can't do this forever. I don't want to retire. I do want to come back. I want to stay competitive." But he just didn't know how to get to the answer of that question. Worse yet, he was making the mistake of just trying to do it just like the [younger racers]. "I'll get fast again. I'll do what they're doing. And I'll be fine."

Scott: He's looking outward and not inward for the answers.

Bob: Mike, you had a one sentence sort of summation which is interesting, in reference to comeuppance, which was "life worth living."

Mike: Oh, yeah. It's just kind of a theme of a life worth living is a life that's constantly evolving. And if you stop or just try and look back, or worse yet, try to go back, then it's not a recipe for happiness.

Bob: We've seen a lot of comeback stories, so we strive to make an emotional and unique one that you may not expect.

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Were there any other movies you used as inspiration or focal points, whether it was for narrative purposes or visual grammar?

Scott: There were a ton. When I first came on, it was right after Brian had been identified as the director. We just sat down and talked about what kind of movie is it you want to make and the emotion behind that. We did start looking at a bunch of different films. Mike's body of work was the first thing to speak to us: Finding Forrester, The Rookie, Secretariat. Not just the sport aspect, but what's being said, the friendships, the motion behind it, the life-changing things that can happen to characters. Lucky enough, Mike was available and willing to come help us out. So his work was a big inspiration. A lot of different sports films. Everything from The Natural and The Color of Money, there's a whole range of different kind of films.

Bob: A lot of docs, a lot of shorts.

Scott: A lot of documentaries. There's a Mario Andretti short film that was made that's a documentary about...

Bob: There was a great one, Racing Dreams, which profiled four [drivers] – how old were they?

Scott: They were different ages, but ranging from 14 to 17. Two boys, two girls.

Kiel: We watched that for the first Cars.

Scott: Did you?

Bob: Oh, wow.

Scott: That can't be because...

Kiel: Well, I watched it.

Bob: We're eating into his time!

[Everyone laughs]

***

On the next page, we discuss the presence of millennial race cars in Cars 3 and the influence that may have had behind the scenes, the layers of the new character Cruz Ramirez and the origins of Cars.

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The dynamic between Jackson Storm and Lightning McQueen seems like it comes from creating this new character who is kind of a millennial hot shot. With you guys being the older generation that now has younger up and comers coming into your industry, how do you guys relate to that story and how did that inform Cars 3?

Bob: We're lot different. Because I'm not that old

[Everyone laughs]

Kiel: Yeah, what are you trying to say!?

Bob: No, we're very nurturing and accepting of these young people coming in. Like I always say, there's no way as a story editor I'd get hired now. You hope that they're much better. We embrace the technology and all that. The trick for us is to not feel threatened and to welcome in this young crop of kids who have such a developed sense of art and cinema. It's a wonderful thing. It's not quite so much what we used to guide us in this film. It mainly grows out of McQueen unable to accept the truth that he's a little older and obsolete and the rest of the world reminding him of that and forcing him to deal with it. So you want a nice crop of very young cars who are fast and very contrasted to him. Even Cruz, who's with him, is very technological and is fast, and is just different. He's from an older generation, and it's all gotta point him into learning what he needs to learn. So that's why they're there, to really throw him off balance.

Mike: From a technology standpoint. It made it easier for us to show him as a fish out of water, by putting him on a simulator.

On a different end of the spectrum, as far as relationship dynamics are concerned, I like how Cristela Alonzo's character Cruz is a woman who doesn't quite feel comfortable in the world of racing. So there's definitely a gender dynamic there, but I also wonder if there's also something inspired by race as well. With Cristela Alonzo being Hispanic, there's just as much of a message in here about someone feeling like an outsider in a society that's predominantly white, in addition to being male. Is that something that informed her character at all, especially once Cristela Alonzo came on to the movie?

Scott: I think it helped strengthen the layers of how unlikely a friend McQueen is going to make of her. It definitely strengthened that she was coming from as far left field as possible. But it didn't scream for her to wear it on her sleeve necessarily. It wasn't like she was using that as an excuse, the character. That didn't feel like that was authentic to who that character needed to be.

Kiel: Yeah, she's already an underdog just by being a female in a man's world. So yeah, you're right, it's a layer.

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All right, this is going to get a little more general than just Cars 3, but I'm kind of fascinated by the world of Cars. I wonder how deep have you guys dug as far as the logistics of the world itself. For example, there's a quick line where I think it's Mater who says, "Thank the manufacturer." So taking that line into consideration, where do Cars come from? Are there baby Cars?

[Bob Peterson laughs]

Scott: Storks bring them. They're full size.

That's a different animated movie!

Scott: Yeah, we try not to go there. We just try not to go there. There's a surreal level of disbelief that you're having to jump already coming into the world where there are talking cars. We think we know what cars are in our world, and they serve a completely different purpose in the Cars world. They're for transportation [in our world] and they don't really transport each other in their world. So they become characters. We lean into that as much as we can and try not to get too hung up on the surreal nuts and bolts of it, I guess.

Bob: But it proposes interesting problems. Even Cars kissing is like –  clank – hitting metal together. It's funny because you have these hunks of metal, but at some point you can't take it too far because it starts falling apart. Some of the story artists had fun with it. They draw cross-sections of the car with a person who's in there, and you can see his eyes. It's just some sort of mutant-like human that's driving this thing.

Kiel: We talked about it a lot more on the first Cars. It was more by feel. People would board things and everyone would go, "No, weird."

It seems like at some point it has to get to a weird level, especially when you start thinking about the biology of it.

Kiel: Just the logistics of them doing things. I remember how much thought went into them getting gas, like the contraption of the arm at the gas station. And there was way too much time spent on that, let alone babies or God.

The God one is interesting, because there's a Popemobile in Cars 2, which makes me wonder is there religion in the Cars world. Then in the first one, you have McQueen getting sentenced to community service by Doc, so what law are they following? What are the politics of Cars like?

[The table laughs]

These are super nerdy questions, but I'm fascinated by them.

Bob: No, you're right.

Scott: This would be a good grad student thesis. I guess if it's not important to our main characters, it's fleshing it out in ways where we try not to look there.

Kiel: But it's fun to think about!

Scott: It is fun to think about. It's fun to speculate. We do have to solve some of those problems every now and then.

Bob: Luckily we get to spend our time thinking about these stories which are very much universal human stories, and if we find ourselves pondering this kind of stuff, then we're probably not doing our job very well.

***

Cars 3 opens on June 16, 2017.