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Cars - John Lasseter interview

John Lasseter, director of Cars

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOHN Lasseter, the director of Cars and a leading figure at Pixar Animation, talks about his passion for automobiles and the messages behind his latest animated hit.

Q: Was this movie born out of your obsession with cars?
A: This movie is a very personal story for me. I grew up in Los Angeles and my father was a parts manager for a Chevrolet dealership. I grew up going to the dealership to look at all the new cars and I got my love of cars from that. I also live in Senoma, California, which is a wine region, but we do have a race track there and all the big race circuits come there, so I’ve really developed a love of racing as well.
But my wife reminded me to make sure I made this movie for her, my nieces and everybody else in the world who doesn’t like racing. So throughout the making of the movie we had what we called ‘The Nancy Factor’ – my wife’s name is Nancy – to make sure this movie is about story and characters and not just designed for ‘Petrol Heads’.

Q: Paul Newman straddles the world of racing and acting. How difficult was he to get, because he’d never done anything like this before?
A: We were nervous about asking him because he’s such a great actor, but we also knew how passionate he is about race cars. When we finally got a chance to talk to him about the project, he was actually quite intrigued because of the choice of car he was going to be. It’s a 1951 Hudson Hornet. Most people who know anything about this car know of its legendary nature. It was really way ahead of its time and dominated the stock car style of racing back then. It was the fastest car of its day. It was a remarkable piece of machinery, so he was very excited about that.
But as we worked with Paul, he was also very passionate about getting the racing right. He really appreciated the dedication I had to making sure the details were correct. In fact, he would talk about the way the communication worked between pit crew and the terms they would use. He really helped make the movie, so I gave him a racing consultant credit as well.

Q: How do you help actors adjust to the very different discipline of voice artistry?
A: We will work with an actor over a period of about two-and-a-half years. We will cast them early to do a session. A session is four hours long. We don’t really go longer than that because it takes a lot out of the actor. Tom Hanks always said it’s the hardest job that he’s ever had – doing the voice of Woody in Toy Story. Actors are normally used to doing about a page of the script a day on a movie set. We do an actor’s entire performance in a four-hour period. We try to do it in chronological order so we get the emotional arcs right, but we always withhold screaming or anything like that because we don’t want to blow an actor’s voice out. If an actor doesn’t leave a Pixar session with his voice really raspy then we haven’t done our jobs. I’m joking!
We also try to get actors who can add-lib as that can help to evolve the character. At Pixar it’s never just about writing the script and making the movie. These movies take a long time to develop. Each of our films are something we’ve created. They’re not based on any books or anything, so the input from these actors is invaluable.

Q: The end credits thank every roadside diner on Route 66. Did you feel the need to travel the road and have that experience?
A: I fell in love with these people on Route 66 and this way of life so much. I just wanted to put that in there because I want kids to sit there and make a list for their parents so they can take them there. One place we visited was the home of the ugly crust pie, another was called The Texan, which had a deal where if you could eat a 72 ounce steak in less than an hour, you got it for free. It’s a gimmick, but that’s one of the charms of Route 66.
It’s interesting that before the interstate there was no national chain of restaurant. It was all very regional and so therefore the cuisine changed as you went across the country. In order to get you to stop at an establishment or a town, it would have a gimmick – you know, World’s Largest Ball of Twine, or something. And they would advertise it for hundreds of miles.
When you get there, you’d have to stop because it’s part of the charm. There’s this wonderful quality about this. Now it seems that with the internet and aeroplane travel everything has become homogenised. You can experience the same experience on one side of the world as you can on the other.

Q. Was that one of the very personal themes that attracted you to this story?
A. Yes, but but for me this movie is about life in balance. I love my career, but early in my Pixar career, when I was making Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2, I was working so hard because I had to start the next movie before the previous one was finished to make the deadline. But during this time I had four of my five kids. My wife was very supportive of my whole career, but after Toy Story 2 she was starting to get worried that it was just going to be this never ending cycle and I seemed to get busier because I was heading up a studio and directing movies. But she said to me: “Be careful, because one day you’re going to wake up and your kids will have grown up and gone to college and you’ll have missed it.” And she was right.
So I decided to take the summer off in 2000 and bought a big motor home, piled the kids into it, put our feet in the Pacific Ocean and turned east. We had two months and the only goal was to get to the Atlantic somewhere, put our feet in and turn back. That was it. And for the first time in my life I was living every day just for the day. We weren’t even thinking about tomorrow, because if we liked the place we’d stay and if we didn’t we’d move on. We just enjoyed each other’s company and enjoyed the experiences we had.
I came back from that trip and I said, “now I know what I want this movie to be about, because I’ve realised that the journey in life is the reward”. I was coming back to my life, I wasn’t quitting, but ever since then, even though my life’s gotten busier, I still take time to enjoy every moment a little bit more. That’s what this movie’s about and that’s why it’s also a very personal movie.

Q: Are you a fan of Formula 1 as well as NASCAR? How did you get Michael Schumacher to do a voice?
A: I love racing of all types and Formula 1 is just spectacular. The cars are beautiful and the spectacle of the race is incredible. I recently went to my first Formula 1 race in Spain and it was everything I hoped it would be. I was really wanting to get voices in the film for the small parts – instead of walk on parts, we called them ‘drive-on parts’ – that were race car drivers. We have Mario Andretti and Richard Petty, who’s an American race-car driver. But I wanted it to be international, so my dream was to get Michael Schumacher to do the voice. That came about through our association with Ferrari. They were tremendously helpful to us in this film and they were the ones who connected with Michael Schumacher. We recorded him last year at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal.

Q: Pixar is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary, can you comment on what you’re proudest of?
A: First of all, I’m proud of Pixar. It’s 20-years-old and I’m so proud of the place. It’s very special. We’re not in Hollywood; we’re up in Northern California. It’s a beautiful building, but more importantly it’s a group of people who are incredibly talented, very smart and very honest with each other. Up in Northern California, everything is not about the entertainment industry, so we like to think we live more regular lives. I think that makes us more intoned with our regular audience.
I’m also very proud of the way that our films entertain audiences. That’s what excited me about what I do. Just sitting in an audience watching them watch the movie is something I enjoy doing. We’re very proud of the collection of characters that kind of live beyond the boundaries of their movies. Like Buzz and Woody – next generations start to like them. Even going back to our first short film, 1986’s Luxo Jr, is very special because it was the first computer animated film to be interesting – not because it was done by the computer, but because of the story and the characters. That was the starting point of what we were wanting to do.
I think with the new deal that happened with the merger of Disney and Pixar, the whole deal has been structured so that Pixar will always stay independent and will always stay what it is. That was very, very important for Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull and myself in this new deal. We will always continue making Pixar films up at Pixar.

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