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Up - Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera interview

Pixar's Up

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DIRECTOR Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera talk to us about Pixar-Disney’s magical Up, some of the challenges involved, why the decision was taken to incorporate 3D and which movies makes them go wow, as well as which Disney classics they cherish the most…

Q. The montage at the beginning of Up is among the most magical things that Pixar have ever done and is guaranteed to reduce viewers to years. How did it come together?
Pete Docter: That was really tricky. It was one of those things where early on we had pitched it and it worked. It was emotional even just to a verbal pitch. And then Ronny Del Carmen storyboarded it and it was absolutely amazing. His drawings just have this real simplicity to them and are very lyrical. People were crying even at the storyboards. So, when it came time to do it I was like: “Oh please, don’t let us mess it up!” In the end, I think everybody just A-plussed it. The colours are beautiful, the animation just works really well.

Jonas Rivera: It was very fragile and we worried about it all the way to the end, because there’s just such a voodoo to the story reel and even to hear you tell the story. At one point I thought maybe we shouldn’t even make a movie; maybe we should just do vaudeville and let Pete tell the story to audiences because it worked! But we had to take a leap of faith once we decided to get literal because you’re pouring cement around these ideas and they’re going to appear that way forever.

Q. Do you think it was a risk having something that emotional early on?
Pete Docter: I guess we didn’t really think of it in terms of risk. It was more: “What do you need to tell the story?” And we knew that for the audience to really care and invest in this guy through all of act 2 and 3, we needed to have a really strong reason for him to be doing what he’s doing – and that’s where the montage came in. It’s establishing this need that this character has to make things right with his wife even though she’s gone. This was his chance to bring her on that journey she never got to go on. If we didn’t have that, I’d worry that the audience would think it was too weird and they’d lose interest.

Q. Tell us about your hiking research to Roraima – was that necessary, and were you scared?
Pete Docter: We did, we hiked up there, and I do think it was necessary. It’s such a fantastic, weird place. Even as it is I’m sure some people watch the film and say ‘you guys have fantastic imaginations,’ but we wanted to capture as much as we could for the believability. One of the things that’s always important in any film but especially in something as fantastic as this one, is that you really believe in these characters, that they could get hurt, that bad things could happen to them and believability was something we worked for.

Q. Was it scary?
Pete Docter: The scariest part was, you’d get to the edge and it’s this table top mountain, nearly 50 miles wide and there are these walls so not only are you a sheer 90 degree cliff drop but you’re actually out in front of it so you’re jutting out in front of it. So, you’re on this rock, which looks like it could topple over at any time. The scariest thing was watching other people crawl out there and look down.

Q. Is Carl based on anyone you know?
Pete Docter: He’s based on a couple of people. My grandfather had that sort of hair and we looked a lot at Spencer Tracey, Walter Matthau and James Whitmore. So, he’s a lot of different elements of different people.

Jonas Rivera: We call him the greatest hits of old men!

Q. Did you always have Christopher Plummer in mind for Muntz?
Pete Docter: He was our first choice. Along the way as the character developed we had different people in mind, but as we started to crystallise we closed in on who we wanted. There are a lot of influences there, too, as wide and varied as Walt Disney and Errol Flynn and all those guys who had that suave, debonair, self-confidence. We were always worried though. That first scene where they meet him we re-wrote something like 50 times. It was crazy. Parts of the film come together more quickly, but this was hard. We had so much exposition about him, so much boring information that the audience needed to know… we tried to disguise it and make it more meaningful and emotional. But you could give Christopher Plummer the phone book to read and he’d find a way to make you sit on the edge of your seat!

Q. Did you focus more on the adult audience here than having the younger viewer in mind?
Pete Docter: I think we do, as we’re writing. Very early on we found this basic theme, which is that Carl worries that he missed out on adventure in life, that he didn’t get down to South America with his wife, and have these fantastic trips and see things and animals that no-one else has seen. At the end he realises that he did get the most wonderful adventure of all, which is this relationship with this woman, and that became the theme of the film. Going back to the death question too, I think that is really the theme of the film.

But I love it when you go to movies that remind you how precious life is, and that it’s so easy to just walk through life and do things in a regular routine. Whenever you sort of get woken up to the fact that we’re only here for a short amount of time, and how amazing it is to get to work with these people, and have my wonderful family, that’s I think why you go to movies and want to experience art. That’s the stuff we’re going for first, and then you have all these other layers to things that will appeal to kids and other age groups.

Q. John Lasseter is obviously a big advocate of 3D. How important is it to you as filmmakers?
Jonas Rivera: The No.1 thing to me is that it’s bringing people back to the cinema. That’s where it was born. Now it’s a question of how is it used. We’re super-excited about it if it’s used correctly and it’s used to tell stories and plus them. I get bored of it, personally, if it’s just a gimmick and it’s things flying at you. In a way, our whole job is to allow the audience to forget they’re at the movies. My metaphor is surround sound and sound design. If you do too much and you go too crazy within your mix, you get the audience looking out for where the speaker is. But you don’t want the audience to know where that speaker is; you want the audience to think they’re in this sub-conscious dream. 3D is the same.

So, if people use it and the director is passionate about it, we love it. We decided to use it very subtly. We had a very emotional movie and we didn’t want to break that voodoo. So, we almost inversed it – we took the screen and made it almost like a window looking in. From time to time, things fly out. But that’s what excited us about it. Our goal was to ensure that if you saw it in 2D, you weren’t missing anything. But if you saw it in 3D, you’re getting a little bonus and a different view of the same thing. It’s a little more immersive.

Q. Will Pixar be moving in to live action films?
Jonas Rivera: Pixar isn’t so much as some of the directors are embarking on making live action films. Andrew Stanton is making John Carter of Mars, and Brad Bird is making 1906, a live action film. But it’s not that the studio is moving in that direction. We’re planning on making more animated films and hopefully they’ll fall back in and make more. We love films. We have screenings every day at the studios of films animated and otherwise, so it’s just like a love letter to movies over there. We’re really excited for those guys. I think of what they’re doing as being like the 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea stage of the Disney studio, which must have been really cool, or Mary Poppins or something. We’re just really excited about it.

Q. Almost everyone I know goes wow at Pixar’s films. What makes the two of you go wow, especially in animation?
Pete Docter: Films that immediately come to mind that I love are films like The Station Agent, which was written and directed by this guy called Tom McCarthy, who actually worked on Up at one point. But they’re just simple character films that enable you to feel deeply for the characters and you believe in their relationships. I know everybody has difficulty answering that question but, for me, that’s what I love.

Jonas Rivera: I love Peter Jackson’s stuff. It’s fun to work on movies and then see one and go: “How did they do that?” The first Batman and things like that… we’d go: “Wow, that’s phenomenal!” Hayao Miyazaki’s [Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle] stuff we love. It takes our breath away.

Q. And what classic Disney clips do you cherish?
Jonas Rivera: It would be Pinocchio… I think it would be the beginning of Pinocchio. The whole first act of that I think is absolutely incredible. The movie is almost like a lullaby to me, it’s something I can’t quite put my finger on. When I’m up at night doing stuff that’s what I always pop in and sit and wonder how they did it.

Pete Docter: I think I’d probably go Dumbo, because it’s so beautifully simple. The story is so basic, you could tell it in five minutes or less, but what that allows for is these wonderful moments of fun or humour or tenderness within it. It’s great.

Q. What do you think of Up‘s chances of getting a best picture nomination at the Oscars now that they’ve broaded the category?
Jonas Rivera: I don’t know… that’s a whole new frontier now. We’ve been lucky enough to tag along to a few of those things over the years and it’s the highest honour. It’s so hard to speculate. I love that people love Up and critically they seem to like it. We do our best every time to make it for us, so our families will enjoy it, and if the Academy chooses to endorse it we’ll show up to the party. If not, we’ll make another one!

Q. Are you revisiting Monsters Inc for a sequel?
Pete Docter: Well, so far the way we’ve looked at sequels are kind of just like the original films – if we find an idea that we think is worth doing then we’ll do it. The sequels are almost more difficult… because if we put a film out that was the same as the one that came before it people would be disappointed. They’d feel like they’d already seen it. So, it’s a bigger challenge and we haven’t quite figured that out yet on Monsters. But we’ll definitely get back to you!

Read our review of Up