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Cars 2 - Denise Ream interview

Cars 2, Denise Ream

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DENISE Ream talks about some of the challenges of producing Cars 2, including assembling a cast and working around their schedules, working with car manufacturers and getting the film into perfect shape.

She also recalls her career progression from working at ILM on the first Harry Potter to appearing briefly in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and then moving to her dream job at Pixar.

Q. What does it mean to you to have become such an integral part of Pixar?
Denise Ream: I have a dream job. I feel really lucky. My first project there, Up, was just fantastic. I loved working with Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera, who was the producer. I was the associate producer and they were very patient with me. It was kind of a dream come true… and that sounds so corny but it really actually is. I have been in production a long time, so to produce a movie was pretty phenomenal for me personally.

Q. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Pixar myself and it seems so relaxed. But is there any kind of pressure going into each project, given the success of past films, the Oscars, the box office expectation…
Denise Ream: I would be dishonest if I said there was not pressure. But it’s pretty self-imposed. As producers, we always joke that you don’t want to be the one to screw up. But at the end of the day, it is literally trying to tell the best story we can and everyone from the top down really does work pretty hard to do that. I felt on this it was really my job to do that. We had a pretty aggressive schedule, so I didn’t want to short-change the story process. So, yeah, there’s definitely pressure. But there is also a lot of support.

Q. John Lasseter describes it as a family…
Denise Ream: Yeah, and really you are working with people who are incredibly smart, gifted and passionate and who care. It’s a very unique place. I don’t think there’s too many studios that operate with the same sort of MO.

Q. Everyone else always seems to be trying to catch up with you…
Denise Ream: Well, that’s good. I love animation, I want to see animated films succeed and it’s really disappointing to me to see any one fail. So, if people can learn from Pixar I think that’s fantastic and it can only make for better movies.

Q. What do you love about animation?
Denise Ream: I did a stop motion project right when I was starting out. I just enjoyed the process quite a bit. It’s very quirky. It’s a complicated process and I like complicated things. Just watching those guys literally bring those performances to life was just amazing. [Early on] I had left Los Angeles to go and work with Industrial Light & Magic [ILM] where I tended to do more of the photo-realistic effects and I ended up working on a film that sadly didn’t do very well, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, where we were literally creating performances. And that’s where I really, really fell in love with animation because I was literally working with animators. In doing that, you’re essentially working with actors and seeing them creating… yes, we have these tremendous actors and their talents from their voice recordings but just seeing the nuances that those animators bring to those performances is amazing.

Cars 2

Q. Will you ever move into direction?
Denise Ream: Never [laughs]! There’s a few of us producers at Pixar that joke that the titles of our autobiographies would be: “We actually don’t want to be directors!” I love production, I love strategising, I love working with the director and I’m a good problem solver. I love great stories, but I could never pretend to be the one to create a great story. I can appreciate a great story. But it’s been really fun collaborating with John and negotiating with him. There were lots of negotiations that went on. So, production is what I was born to do.

Q. So, what was the biggest problem you had to solve on Cars 2?
Denise Ream: The main one was really trying to make sure we could iterate on the story as many times as we typically do at Pixar. So, how we did that was we went on a really rigorous screening schedule because we screened the movie, typically… in reality, John says every 12 to 14 weeks but it’s more like every 14 to 16 weeks. But we had to go on a 16-week screening schedule, so every 12 weeks we were turning around the movie and screening it. So, that was pretty demanding. But I think it was Andrew Stanton who kind of created the term ‘fail quickly’. And that’s essentially kind of what you’re doing – you’re putting the movie up to see what doesn’t work. So, that was a challenge doing those 12 week turnarounds. And the scope of the movie was also enormous.

Q. It’s Pixar’s biggest yet…
Denise Ream: Yes. So, all of those locations and characters were a huge, huge challenge to design and build and shade and light. And then on a purely production note, I haven’t talked about this too much but getting co-operation from over 30 car companies was a challenge. A couple of the deals literally were signed within a month of the US release. So, we had to build them, animate… I mean, we had the cars in the movie [already] and our point was that we wanted to populate the countries with iconic cars that were beloved by each of those countries and not the 2012 version, which they wanted us to use.

Q. Did you have to consult anyone associated with James Bond when it came to the Finn McMissile design and the Aston Martin association with early 007s such as Goldfinger?
Denise Ream: We created our own car, so basically we were very careful to do our own special designs that incorporated lots of elements from classic British cars, so that we could basically avoid that problem with James Bond.

Cars 2, Michael Caine

Q. How difficult was it to get all the actors? I mean, Michael Caine has said he was working on this for two and a half years… so scheduling must be a bit of a jigsaw puzzle?
Denise Ream: Absolutely, from a purely production and logistical point of view that was hugely challenging. We had to be pretty resourceful. So, we did do a fair bit of what we call tie-lines and captured people when they were finishing their day of work. The interesting situation on this movie was that we had a lot of parts but there were a handful of really big parts. So, fortunately, we didn’t have to record many, many, many times with people, which helped a bit. But Michael Caine’s schedule… that man works a lot, so we had to be very strategic about when we were able to get him. We had one recording session where he was in Hawaii. We came to London a couple of times. But he’s also someone who is dead on, take one, perfect reading, pretty much all the time.

Q. Are racing drivers such as Lewis Hamilton harder or easier to get schedule-wise?
Denise Ream: I was really impressed with Lewis Hamilton because we didn’t know what to expect. Again, when we were talking to him we explained that, just like you couldn’t get anyone to jump in and drive a Formula One car, it is really the same way with acting. Most of the actors, particularly the British actors, are very well trained and educated, but he came prepared and was very open and took the direction very well from John. He did quite well and I was really happy with his performance. He was a delight to work with and it was fun.

Q. Did you sense any nervousness from him about stepping into the booth? I mean, he usually projects such confidence as a racing driver…
Denise Ream: Yeah but it’s interesting… in general, there were a few people – and he was probably less nervous than some who had never done any animation before. I was surprised at how nervous some people who hadn’t done it were. It was not something I had expected because you assume that if they’ve been in live action films, they’ve been back to do ADR. Luckily, we typically do not do ADR. We really try to do the voice recording before we do the animation. Occasionally, we’ll have to do ADR but we really try to avoid it and it’s a small, small percentage of shots. So, it was interesting to see how some people were a little nervous. But they gradually become more and more comfortable. But any situation where you go into something not knowing what to expect can be challenging. I mean, this is the first time I’ve ever done a press conference, for example, and I was actually slightly terrified [laughs]. So, it’s got to be the same for some of these folks.

Q. Pixar producers do a lot of press but is that something you didn’t necessarily expect? And have you enjoyed it?
Denise Ream: Yeah, to be honest it was the part that I was most anxious about. I love my job and I joke that if you give me the most complicated thing in the world to produce I would figure out how to do it. But getting up and talking in front of people is utterly terrifying to me. People have been very kind, so it’s been much more enjoyable than I thought it was going to be. But I do get nervous, I’m shy and I don’t like public attention. At one point, I really wanted to produce the film but I was afraid of the public speaking part of it, but luckily people were very supportive at Pixar.

Cars 2, John Lasseter

Q. But there’s so much love for the Pixar product that must help?
Denise Ream: It does… you sort of know it intellectually but until you get out and talk to people… just talking to people in person and seeing how much they love the studio makes it a lot easier. I mean, I got to do a Q&A for some kids today who were elementary age and that was really fun. Seeing how much they love the movie… it makes it worthwhile. It was hilarious, though… one kid asked me if I was rich. “Are you rich?” I explained how we were travelling around promoting the film and he said: “Are you rich?” That killed me.

Q. Throughout your career, you’ve been involved in some incredible films. You were part of the effects team on the first Harry Potter…
Denise Ream: That was an amazing project. We didn’t get a script when we were doing the cost estimation for the effects work at ILM. Basically, we were just handed the first book. I had only peripherally heard about it back then. I don’t have children and so I wasn’t up on children’s literature. But I ended up having a really bad cold one weekend, so I read the first book… I think I stayed up and read it in eight hours. And then I went out and got the second book and read that the following night. And then the third…

So, I was very keen about working on that first film and it was really fun. It was also incredible. I got to spend time in London, to come over here for the shooting and really did fall in love with the city. We were really thrilled to be part of it. And what was interesting on that first film ILM was not the lead studio. I like to say that after we did our portion of it, including some of the more complicated scenes, ILM ended up working on every single one subsequent to that.

Q. And you also worked on Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith? And made a cameo in it?
Denise Ream: Oh my God! I joke that in my obituary there’s going to be a picture that’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life! Yeah, it’s funny, there’s so much blue screen photography that if there’s any humans, those are actually all ILM employees that get photographed against a blue screen in order to populate the world. So, the leadership team on the third movie decided: “OK, let’s be in it!” By that movie, you’re begging people because the novelty has worn off.

So, we got in it and I was so nervous that I kept talking in the background and they literally had to move me out of the frame because I was so distracting. They had to blow it up in order to get rid of me sitting there with my mouth moving a mile a minute! But it was fun. That was another project that made me decide that I really wanted to work on an animated film because you were essentially doing everything on those movies. You’re touching every single shot. So, I was like: “Now I want to be involved with helping to craft the story.” It was a seminal moment for me.

Q. Finally, what’s the most gratifying response you’ve had to Cars 2?
Denise Ream: My very cynical 13-year-old niece… when the first film came out, she was eight and she absolutely loved it. In fact, I fell in love with the first movie with her and so at the end of the day I wanted her to like Cars 2 better than the first one. So, she came to the premiere, and she’s a teenager now, and she loved it and had a big smile. She said: “That was awesome!” And she’s not really one to throw compliments around. So, I felt that it was genuine and I was like: “OK, I did my job!”

Cars 2 is released in UK cinemas on July 22, 2011.