Lightyear Director Angus MacLane And Producer Galyn Susman On Taking Buzz Beyond Toy Story [Interview]

Pixar got its start more than 25 years ago with the groundbreaking "Toy Story," the first fully 3D computer-animated movie to ever be released in theaters. That film would go on to fuel the studio's biggest franchise for years to come, with not one but three incredibly successful sequels to follow over the years. But it already felt, in some ways, like "Toy Story 4" was pushing Pixar's luck, since "Toy Story 3" managed to feel like such a satisfying conclusion to the whole thing. Rather than merely continue along those same lines, Disney and Pixar have opted to expand the franchise in a new, unique direction with this summer's "Lightyear."

The film stars Chris Evans, best known for his role as Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as Buzz Lightyear, replacing Tim Allen. But that's because this is not the story of a toy. It's not even a "real" story, so to speak. This is supposed to be the movie that Andy from "Toy Story" watched in his youth that ultimately ended up inspiring the toy voiced by Allen. That conceit gave Pixar a way to continue the franchise while also making a straight-up, action-packed sci-fi movie. It's a pretty unique thing in the scope of Hollywood franchise filmmaking, and I recently spoke to the people who made it happen.

I had the opportunity to sit down with director Angus MacLane as well as producer Galyn Susman, who helped shed some light on the film ahead of its release this summer. We went over how the idea came to be, what it's like bringing Pixar back to theaters, and whether or not this will be a one-off or the start of something bigger.

"You have to have a certain amount of hubris going into this"

I think for a lot of us that grew up with this franchise, it felt like "Toy Story 3" was a perfect conclusion to all of it. Then "Toy Story 4" came out, and, against the odds, managed to be incredible. Did you guys have any hesitation in going into this and doing something in the "Toy Story" play box again?

MacLane: I didn't, because I see it as such a separate thing. It's much more of its own thing with a character expanded upon in their backstory. It's such a separate thing. I mean, you have to have a certain amount of hubris going into this, to make a movie.

Susman: Right. But it's a whole new universe inspired by a character within the "Toy Story" world, right?

MacLane: Yeah.

Susman: But it is its own universe.

MacLane: It wasn't a corporate decision of like, "Could you do this?" No, it was something that we wanted to do. Because internally, I felt so strongly about the character and what I thought the potential of the film was, and the amount of leeway that the studio afforded us to tell the story we wanted to tell. As they would say, no one to blame but myself. So I don't know. I did not — the pressure I felt was just, "Will it be awesome? It better be awesome." So that was really our goal.

It is one of those things when I heard the concept, it didn't reek that this was a corporate-mandated story. This sort of smelled like someone had a cool take on it. From what I've seen, it certainly looks to be the case.

MacLane: Yeah, it was definitely true. I mean, I think they were happy to produce it. Once we pitched the idea, they saw the value in it. But it's very much the labor of love of hundreds of artists making it as cool as possible.

Susman: And there are so many people who work at Pixar who are excited to get an opportunity to do sci-fi, so that really was also a big draw.

If I had to have a genre of film that I like the most, it's sci-fi. And I obviously grew up with Pixar. So for me, it's very cool to see this thing I grew up with finally doing something that is probably in my favorite corner of cinema.

Susman: I'm with you.

"The cinematic experience is very important to me"

I grew up seeing Pixar movies in movie theaters. The past few Pixar movies have largely been on Disney+. You guys get the honor of being the first Pixar movie back in a theater in over two years. How do you feel about that? Was that always going to be the case, or at what point did you realize that was going to fall to you?

Susman: All of our films were always made to be seen in the movie theater. Covid has just kept ... [sarcastically] [it's] the gift that keeps on giving. It looks like, knock on whatever you'd like to knock on, we're going to be okay to release in theaters. And we're just excited to be there because we're excited to create an experience for people that's communal and shared again, that people can see it on the big screen and have that sense of wonderment that you can only get when you have a communal theater experience. We all miss it. We can't wait to get back to the theaters in general.

MacLane: I love movies and I'm really passionate about film. And the cinematic experience is very important to me, and I'm sad that the other Pixar films before us didn't get enough opportunity for release because of Covid. But hopefully, we can be a force for good for the theaters and we can inspire people to come back into the theater and enjoy our film and help out those theaters that are struggling. So I feel like it's an honor. And hopefully, we can help them out.

So Angus, for you specifically, the bit of footage I've gotten to see was really awesome. Everyone who makes movies is a fan of movies, but you inject that sense of your love for sci-fi, specifically, into the work in a big way. You've worked a lot in animation, but is there a live-action thing that you have your eye on?

MacLane: Yeah. I mean, part of the thing is like, this movie is exactly what I want to be making. So I get a chance to create a little bit of a universe. I don't know. I think it's a challenge. In so much live-action now, you're dealing with a lot of animated elements also. So here, we get to craft the whole thing under one roof. And the animators know each other, and they work together. It's like working with a really great troupe of actors. There's plenty of movies I'd like to do that aren't necessarily animated films or appropriate for Pixar. But I think right now, this is really what I'm excited about. It's like literally like a big movie sci-fi geek got to make a sci-fi, geeky movie. It's for everyone. But for sci-fi fans, it's pretty specifically geared towards them.

From what I've seen, it very much is, and I love that about it. I don't have a ton more time, but you did touch on something I did want to ask about. This is obviously kind of, sort of in the "Toy Story" universe, but as you said, it's its own thing, it's adjacent. And you just said you got the chance to create your own universe. When you went into this, did you see this as a one-and-done thing? Or if this goes well, do you see an expansion?

MacLane: I suppose it's possible. I mean, it's a lot of work to make any of these movies. It took a long time. Someone earlier asked us if we would think about doing five of these, and math-wise, that would pencil out to be finished when we're approximately 120. I think for me, the thing that really drew me to "Star Wars" originally was the implication that there were larger stories on either side of that adventure. "Star Wars" didn't require a movie to be before or a movie to be after it. With this movie in mind, I wanted to have something that felt like it was an adventure — that there were adventures that happened beforehand and there were adventures that could happen after, but [those were] not necessary.

The reality of making the movie is right now, we're not yet done with the movie, and we are working on finishing the movie. So we'll see where it goes after this, as far as what we will do next. But I think the universe would support it, certainly. But it's not currently planned.

"Lightyear" is set to hit theaters on June 17, 2022.