The Emotional Story That Inspired 'Cars 3' [Interview]

Cars 3 isn't your typical children's animated movie. Not that we expect the typical from Pixar, but the Cars franchise has been more geared (pun intended) towards younger audiences. At the core of the film is Owen Wilson's character Lightning McQueen, who is faced with the possible end of his career. The new generation of racers are faster and smarter, and while McQueen attempts to make a comeback, he must come to terms with, well, being old. These are some heavy topics for a G-rated animated movie.

Speaking with director Brian Fee and producer Kevin Reher, I learned that the idea came from conversations with racing star Jeff Gordon and a very emotional moment director Fee had with his daughters.

Cars 3Brian Fee: It's kind of the marriage of two things.  The plot and then the emotion.  And they don't have to be the same thing, but they can support each other.  The plot of Lightning getting older was just straight from where would McQueen be ten years later?  What he used to be the hotshot, right?  But he's not now.  In fact, Jeff Gordon was getting close to retirement; we talked a lot with [Gordon].  And one of the things he told us was his biggest fear in life now; this was before he retired, right before he retired, his greatest fear was that he'd never be as good at anything else.  And here he is, he's what is he 40 years old?  He has half of his life in front of him.  And yeah.Kevin Reher: And he'd been racing since he was 12 in go-karts.Brian Fee: And it terrified him to think of life without racing.  Now and he has to go through that because they expire faster than the rest of us, but we all don't know what that feels like.  So it's kind of like how does the every person connect with that?  So the way I connected to it was just as a father.  Like I thought of like when I was coming out of college, life's all about you.  It's all about you finding a career and whatever.  And now that I have a family, life's not really about me anymore.  I look at my children, and I tell the story where I was trying to teach my art lesson on how to make a final illustration.  'Cause I have an illustration degree.

I wanted to be a Disney animator.  So I went to college and tried to learn how to draw thinking that was gonna work out for me.  It didn't.  They didn't hire me.  They turned me down when I applied for an internship, 2D animation internship. That was my way in, right? Just learn to draw they said. Just learn to draw and apply for an internship. And I didn't get in. And then they called me to tell me that I'll always be a shining star in their book. That was my booby prize was like do I get that printed on a T-shirt? What do I do with that? You'll always be a shining star.

Cars 3Peter Sciretta: It's funny how we sometimes look to Pixar in our view of real life. It occurs to me that your career journey has kind of gone the way of the ending of Monsters University. You dreamed of being an animator, but in the end, you winded up being the director. Not bad. Okay, so that story of the art lesson?Brian Fee: I wanted to show my children that the only difference between a beautiful, finished illustration and what they do with their crayons is just time.  It's just time spent.  It's just still a person with a stick.  And so I put one of their dolls down, and I spent hours where I was gonna paint the doll's portrait, spent hours with it and 20 minutes later they weren't paying attention.  They ran off and played.  But I stayed with it.  Three hours later, I showed them the final product.  And they're just like "Oh, that's cool.  Neat."  And then they ran off and played.  And I just thought, great, I spent all day, and I have a painting of a doll.  It's just what I've always wanted, right?

And then a week later, I go to my older daughter's room, and she's got these drawings on the floor.  And she had set up her stuffed animals.  And she was drawing their portrait.  And I had this rush that went over me; it was a life epiphany.  Where that stupid doll painting might have been one of the most important pieces of artwork I've ever made.  And I was so proud of them, and I wanted that feeling, 'cause I was feeling it.  Of my children's success is more important than mine.

And I've always wanted that feeling for this movie that McQueen could step off of the spotlight and be proud that be even more proud of someone else's win than his own.  So that to me is the emotional feeling and it happened to go hand in hand with what Jeff Gordon was going through in retiring.  And how do you become okay with retiring?  Well, then you have to have something that's even better.  You have to have another part of your life.  Doc taught him everything he knew.  It's time for him to...  Even inadvertently.  Like he goes to this film not realizing it until he feels it.


Cars 3 is in theaters today.