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Wall-E - Andrew Stanton interview

Andrew Stanton, writer and director of Wall-E

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WRITER-director Andrew Stanton talks about the inspiration behind his latest animated hit, Wall-E, and why he’s continuing to raise the bar at Pixar Studios.

Q. Can you take us through the origins of the idea to the realisation of a film that may come to be regarded as a masterpiece?
Andrew Stanton: Well, it was this one sentence out of a lunch in 1994. We were in the middle of making Toy Story and we said simply: “What if mankind left Earth and somebody forgot to turn the last robot off?”. The idea of something doing the same thing forever was, to me, the ultimate definition of futility. I just thought that was the saddest character I’d ever heard of, and we said it should speak in the manner that it was built, much like R2D2 did. And wouldn’t it be cool to see a whole movie with a character like that?

For us as filmgoers, we thought that would be great, but we immediately said nobody would ever give us money to do something like that. We hadn’t even finished Toy Story, we hadn’t proved that we could make any movie so that’s where it sort of lived and died. It took for us to make, I think, five or six more movies for me to get more confident as a filmmaker and for the technology to improve. And so about seven years later I’m in the middle of Finding Nemo and I find my brain drifting to this little lonely robot, wondering who he is, what the story should be, and what it should be about.

By then I knew a lot more and I realised it was the loneliness that appealed to me, and the opposite of loneliness is love, and so it should be a love story. And then the idea of a love story combined with the sci-fi genre and I was just hooked. I found myself, even at my busiest schedules, hiding in my office, starting to write this. And that’s always a good sign… I was pretty much hooked after that. By then, I had more confidence that the audience trusted Pixar, that we could go a little more out on a limb, and people might follow us.

Q. Are you surprised at the things people read into the film after the event, the themes of capitalism, environmentalism and even obesity?
Andrew Stanton: I knew all of those were hot button issues but I firmly believe that if you, as a storyteller, truly understand your premise, and come to all the elements that are going to be used in the story honestly, for a singular purpose, then they’ll fit into place regardless of how political they might be. I’m the least political guy and the last thing I want is to be preached to when I see something, so all the things I used, I knew that they had parallel issues but I started on it so early that I couldn’t have guessed the headlines would be so prescient. In fact, they’re all there for the larger issue of the love story, which was to ask: “What’s the purpose of living?” When you say something like that it incorporates everything. I figured I wasn’t going to let fear take something out of the picture just because it happens to be matching hot button issues, I’m going to do what’s right for the movie. So, I stuck to my guns and kept all these elements in. I have been accused of making certain statements and at the same time I’ve been accused of the opposite [sentiment] so it’s almost more a reflection of the beholder than anything else.

What I’ll stand behind is that I picked everything in order to reinforce the premise I had, which is irrational love defeats life’s programming. That basically it takes a random act of love and kindness to get you out of your habits and your routines. And anything can be used for it… I happened to pick retail therapy for that, and electronics and literal technology, but you could put anything in there as things that are habits and routines that distract you from the real point of living, which is relationships and things. And that’s why I used everything.

I initially started with a plant, not because I had an environmental slant, even though I’d ended up going there. It was because it was something real. I loved the idea that WALL·E was this man-made machine that had something real inside him that had been lost on the rest of the world, and in the universe. I wanted him to meet something that was real also surrounded by man-made stuff, which was this organic plant. So I actually had that before I knew where I was going with it. The fact that it came from an honest place, I took comfort in.

Q. Was there pressure from the studio men in suits to anthropomorphise WALL·E and EVE?
Andrew Stanton: We don’t have men in suits in house at Pixar, and fortunately when I came up with this idea it was during the near-divorce years between Pixar and Disney, so there was nobody checking in. I was pretty much a free range chicken, I was allowed to just sort of go with what I wanted. And to be honest, a lot of those design decisions I did in the year that you’re the most under the radar, the year right after you’ve just finished your picture as a director at Pixar. Pretty much they’re right onto the next film and worrying about what’s going to happen next, they expect you to go and take a vacation and slowly ponder what you might do next. But I decided to jump into developing this idea so there was literally nobody watch dogging me. I got almost the entire first act up, the designs of the characters, all that stuff done in private. So those were all just pure artistic designs from me, about both of them.

Q. Is it true that the Hello Dolly footage and references reflect your background in high school theatre?
Andrew Stanton: [Laughs] I’m not saying I’m a Hello Dolly fan! WALL·E clearly has bad taste in musicals. But yes, I was in the show and I played Barnaby. But I must admit that there was a guy in high school I grew up with – we made movies in our backyards together – who took me up on a hill and hit a hammer on a water tower wire to show me how some guy from Star Wars had made this laser gun sound. He and I did theatre together, he played Cornelius and I played Barnaby, so I invited him to the premiere that we had in LA because I knew he would know the roots of this way better than anybody else in my life. And he was weeping when this thing was over, just because there was so much connectivity to it all. I did my share of high school theatre, and Hello Dolly! is one of the many plays that I did.

Q. Does Michael Crawford know that thanks to you he’s in the biggest movie of his career?
Andrew Stanton: [Laughs] There’s been a lot of news of Jerry Herman, who wrote it. I don’t know if you read that article, everybody kept calling him and said he had to go and see this film, and apparently he was just moved to tears by it. But those kind of things make me feel like a million bucks because to me, getting to work with Ben [Burtt] or Sigourney [Weaver] or hearing things about Jerry Herman, I just feel like I can’t give back enough because of what it did to me to go to the movies and what I got out of it growing up, and still do.

Q. What’s your favourite moment in the film?
Andrew Stanton: You do try to make every single sequence as good as you can, but I can say the sequence that is special to me because it was the first one where I went: “That’s what I’ve been trying to get this whole time.” It’s a very small moment, but, to me, it’s one of the most powerful and it’s when EVE’s in the truck with WALL-E and she discovers what his lighter does. We catch him privately staring at her while she’s looking at the lighter. To me that was a kind of maturity in using the camera to tell so much emotion that I just felt I always get that in great movies but I’ve never seen it in animation. I felt we’d finally tapped into it.

Read our review of Wall-E