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Toy Story 3 – Lee Unkrich interview

Lee Unkrich directs Toy Story 3

Interview by Rob Carnevale

LEE Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3, gives us some insight into the inspiration behind some of the characters of the latest movie, as well as why he’s made horror director Eli Roth and American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis cry.

He also reveals some of the secrets behind Pixar’s youthful and fun ethos as a company, including why he shaved his head while making the film.

Q. Your Pixar career began with Toy Story, when you were a film editor. So, your life has been wrapped around the wonder of creating these three movies. What does it mean to you to be part of this franchise?
Lee Unkrich: Well, I have been very lucky to have been a part of all three of the Toy Story films. I remember back to when we were making the first Toy Story film – we knew that we were making something special, that was unlike anything the world had ever see up to that point, but we certainly didn’t think we were making anything that was going to become a part of pop culture. We were hoping we could make a halfway decent movie that people would want to see, and that we would maybe be lucky enough to make another movie after that one. That was as grand as our plans were at the time.

But of course, Toy Story did end up going on to be a huge hit, people loved it, and then a few years later we made Toy Story 2, which against all odds did well and was well received critically. Then, a lot of years went by before Toy Story 3 and when John Lasseter asked me to direct the film, I was very excited but I was also completely freaked out at the idea of having to take the helm of a story that was so beloved to so many people all over the world. I certainly didn’t want to be seen as the person responsible for screwing it up in any way.

Q. How easy is it to cast a villainous character in a film such as this? Or even depict some of the characters in ways that, even in the days of the first Toy Story, might have made the toy manufacturers who created the toys raise an eyebrow?
Lee Unkrich: I don’t know if they would have back then. We had some dark elements and some spooky characters in the original Toy Story and the toy companies were still happy to make the toys [laughs]. But you need a full range of characters in any movie and you need characters whose interests are antithetical to the main characters. In this case, Lotso was just that and we had a lot of fun who is seemingly very trustworthy and then, of course, has another side to him. He’s talked about a lot in the press, which kind of disappoints me because it kind of ruins the twist for people. But all of the early aueie4nces who saw the film without knowing what was going to happen were thrilled because they had no idea that he was going to turn that corner.

Q. But in terms of the post-modern ironic version of Ken… would that increase sales of Ken?
Lee Unkrich: [Laughs] Well, I hope so! Here’s the funny thing about Ken… we approached Mattel and we pitched them a whole conceit of Ken and what we wanted to do with him, and how we were going to make fun of him. They were completely on board; they were happy to have him in the film and they trusted us to do right by him. But because everything was on the record, we had a lot of conversations with Mattel and met with their designers, their historians and we find out that one of the funny things about Ken is that for years, Mattel tried to find a special feature for Ken, to try to boost sales. For the longest time, I think he was priced at $4.99 and they wanted to give him some special feature to price him above that. They finally realised that the fact he was $4.99 was his special feature.

To us, that was just perfect because it fed into what we were already thinking about Ken… which is that he’s a really insecure guy. He’s a guy who’s a girl’s toy, he’s only played with by little girls, he’s ostensibly an accessory for Barbie who is no more important than her shoes, her purse or her handbag, and we just figured he’d be a completely insecure wreck and over-compensating in many ways. So, that’s where his character kind of came from.

Q. Continuing with the dark side, who came up with Big Baby?
Lee Unkrich: We did a lot of research into day cares and everywhere that we went we’d see a lot of these baby dolls… there would often be cribs full of five or 10 naked baby dolls, covered with pen marks. They were just a hallmark of day cares, so we wanted to stay true to that. And, of course, we were making a prison break film and we needed to have some baddies in the place, so to me it seemed like a logical thing to do. But what I love personally about Big Baby is that, yes, he is scary at times, because I filmed him in a scary way, but he’s an innocent. I think he’s a very tragic character in the film. I love that we can have a moment like the one on the swing, which is frightening in a fun way, byut just moments later you feel such deep empathy for the character.

Q. How much time do you spend trying to work out who will be perfect for the roles?
Lee Unkrich: Well, we spend a lot of time trying to find the perfect person. We have a guy at Pixar, Kevin Rear, who is our casting director… so for a character like Lotso, for instance, it was very important to me to find an actor who could play comedy, and who could be very trustworthy and warm, but who could also carry the darker material. That was a very tricky thing, because I didn’t want to tip our hand at all.

So, I looked at some actors who I knew could do the intense stuff that I knew Lotso needed to do, but I didn’t think anybody would buy them as a warm, grandfatherly kind of guy. So, that was actually the most difficult character in the film to cast. It just took time until Ned Beatty’s name finally ended up on a list. The moment I saw it I thought it was perfect because he’s done a lot of comedy in his career, he is this kind of warm, genial kind of guy, but he’s done some intense stuff in his career as well. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Network and that was a very intense character. So, he came on board and ended up being the perfect person to play the character.

Q. Bret Easton Ellis, the author of American Psycho, said he saw Toy Story 3 and compared tear stains with horror director Eli [Hostel] Roth afterwards. How does that make you feel – do you take a wicked sense of satisfaction at making grown men cry?
Lee Unkrich: Satisfaction [laughs]? I’m proud that people find the movie affecting. We all find it very interesting that there’s been so much talk about men crying in this film. We certainly never set out to make men cry. It wasn’t a goal of making the film. But we do find it very, very interesting that people are affected by it. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about exactly why that’s been happening.

Q. But you do explore issues of abandonment, ageing and extinction in Pixar movies that many other genre movies wouldn’t go near…
Lee Unkrich: Well, again, we’re not… a lot of those themes emerge as we’re making the films. We didn’t start out with a laundry list of things we wanted to explore in the film. They came about organically. But once they did start to emerge and we realised that the film was about those things in many ways, we’d continue the writing to kind of support them. But at the end of the day we also want to make a very funny movie, so part of the game is to find a balance between the more meaningful moments of the film but also make sure it’s really funny and entertaining on top of that.

Q. How easy was it to bring back the original voice cast?
Lee Unkrich: Everybody came back with the exception of Jim Varney, who unfortunately passed away after Toy Story 2. He played Slinky Dog. We spent a long time trying to find a suitable replacement for him and we found Blake Clark, who is a character actor, who – as it turned out – is friends with Jim. He knew him and so took it upon himself to make sure he did right by the role. We always felt like we were channelling Jim a bit every time we did a recording session.

When we were all done, and when I showed the finished film to many of the actors, I told Blake that I thought Jim would be proud and he unexpectedly broke down sobbing at that moment because I think it was so important to him to get this right and he felt like he was… it was a big deal to him that he’d been given the responsibility of stepping up and being a part of this big film, which was part of this big history of the Toy Story films. He was very relieved to see that he’d done right by the part.

Q. What’s with this big kid attitude that permeates the workforce at Pixar? Is it true that during the making of Toy Story 3 someone came up with the notion that all you gentlemen, and some ladies, should shave their heads and have a contest to see whose head could be the most shiny, and who could grow the biggest beard?
Lee Unkrich: [Laughs] You know, so much of the fun at Pixar comes down from John Lasseter… he’s definitely set the tone of the company and he surrounded himself in the early days with people that were big kids like him. So, that spirit of fun has never gone away, even though we’ve gotten a lot bigger and Disney owns us now. Pixar is still in many ways the same kind of place. The animators especially… there’s a very frat house mentality down there. It’s like anything goes and there’s a lot of craziness and debauchery a lot of the time. In that case, we had just finished up.

It was all done and the spotlight was kind of swinging onto us, and my supervising animators decided that we needed to have a clean start: we needed to kind of clean the deck and say: “OK, it’s now us… we’re making the next film.” So, they thought let’s just shaver our heads and beards and then see who could go the longest without getting a haircut or shaving our beard. Before that day, I actually had kind of long, shaggy hair and I had never worn a beard in my life, and now look at me. But we knew it would build morale… especially if I did it.

Q. So, is there a picture somewhere of all you baldies?
Lee Unkrich: Yeah, there is [laughs]. There’s a great picture of me with the sun hitting the back of my head and it looks exactly like the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Q. As the founding members of Pixar do get older, how do you retain that sense of youth and enthusiasm in the films you make?
Lee Unkrich: Well, you know, we act very immaturely in a lot of ways. When we got together, we were in our 20s a lot of us… when we made Toy Story. So, when we get back together we kid very much in the same way. And I suppose our children keep us young in a lot of ways.

Q. Can you name your favourite character in the film? Or is it a bit like being a parent asked to name their favourite child?
Lee Unkrich: It is exactly like that [laughs]. I would never say I like this character more than any other character in the film, but I do have a soft spot for Big Baby. I mean, you ask who came up with Big Baby… and that was kind of my creation. I love that he’s kind of a spooky character but also a very tragic character. I’ve always thought of him like Lenny in Of Mice and Men.

Read our review of Toy Story 3