Brian Fee - Cars 3 Interview

Finishing up our coverage of Cars 3 (at least until the movie hits theaters this summer), we have a one-on-one interview with the film’s director Brian Fee. Unlike most directors at Pixar Animation who have taken on a short film before heading into feature territory, Fee jumped straight from being a storyboard artist on the first two Cars films (as well as WALL-E and Ratatouille) right into the director’s chair, with no experience directing whatsoever. That’s something we talk about in our interview, along with how the story of Cars 3 evolved, whether there’s room for improvisation in an animated movie, and much more.

Most of the time, a Pixar director usually works on one of their short films before directing a feature. How did this happen, and why was Cars 3 the movie that got you into the director’s chair?

That’s a good question, and it’s probably not what you think. I don’t know what you think. Yeah, I’ve never directed anything. But I did work with John [Lasseter] very closely, and I worked with Andrew Stanton very closely on WALL-E. I worked with John on both Cars movies, and I was in development working on this one. I was literally tapped on the shoulder and asked – well, told – John wants to see you. Okay. What, now? Now. Uhhh, okay.

So I walked to John’s office, I had no idea, this was just out of the blue as far as I was concerned. I walked into John’s office and that’s when he said, “You’re gonna direct Cars 3.” Ed Catmull [president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios] was sitting next to him, and Catmull leans over and says, “Now we realize we’re not actually asking. We know that.” [Laughs] That was quite a moment, because I was completely honored that they would trust me with the story, and super honored to be able to continue to find the story. Because this was early on in the process when it wasn’t locked up yet story-wise. But also terrified, because I’ve never directed anything before. It’s kinda hard to do. I’ve watched other directors very closely and it’s a hard job. It’s always a hard job. It doesn’t matter how many movies you’ve directed, every one is super hard. So how much harder would it be to not even know how to do it? I had a lot to learn. So you can excuse yourself, go down the hall to an empty office and scream for 10 minutes, right? And then come out, roll up your sleeves and get to work.

The first thing I did was ask to have meetings with every other director as often as possible to start picking their brains, learning everything I can, taking all the advice I can get, starting with John. He’s the first place I went.

Cars 3

Since you worked on the previous two Cars movies, did they just know you had this passion for the franchise that you could keep it going forward?

I don’t know the exact answer John would give you there, but I like to think that John recognized from my work that while I didn’t know the details of directing, I like to think he saw whatever bones are necessary. I certainly believe he at least knew how much I loved these characters and how much they felt like family to me, how connected I was to the story we were telling. I like to think he trusted me with that story.

Since you’re a first-time director, and you just said you had no idea how to direct, what’s one of the lessons you’ve learned throughout this process?

The hardest thing to do is still to figure out the story, because you can never learn your way out of that. But I had the tools because I came from the story department. I knew I had the tools to figure out the story, it’s just a matter of time and surrounding yourself with very smart people. That was also a lesson I learned from Andrew [Stanton], surrounding yourself with smart people. When Andrew sat down with me, he said, “It’s not your job to have all the answers. It’s your job to have the right crew, and it’s your job to get them to give you the answers. That’s your job.” That was a great thing I took from Andrew. It’s not my job to do their job for them, it’s my job to inspire them. It’s my job to just keep at it, whatever it takes ’til we crack this nut, so to speak.

Pete Docter [director of Monsters Inc., Up and Inside Out] gave me wonderful advice. Pete Docter said, “If you look at any of our movies, if you really look at any of our movies through a microscope and try to think about what would happen logically, they’ll all fall apart. Every one of them. They won’t make any sense. But if you take the audience on a journey, as long as it’s entertaining and emotional, they’ll follow you.” That was great. Basically he was saying don’t overthink things. That was great advice. So I was able to catch these little nuggets from everybody.

Now, I didn’t know anything about production. I didn’t know anything about directing animators. I didn’t know anything about lighting. I didn’t know anything about directing the art department. But I actually found those things to be not too hard, because it’s their job to do great work. There are so many great people, they’re experts. It was just my job to make sure they know what the story needs and that everything they’re producing, I hold it against one question: is this helping us tell our story? If this is helping us tell our story, great. If it’s not helping us tell our story, why, and let’s keep at it. I actually found that process, when you think about it in those terms, it can become easy.

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