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Monsters University: Dan Scanlon and Kori Rae

monsters u

Since the release of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar Animation Studios has been one of America’s most consistent producers of outstanding films, boasting a list of Oscar-winners that includes Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up. These films, along with the two Toy Story sequels, remain among the most inventive, entertaining, and heartfelt films in recent memory. One of Pixar’s signature achievements is 2001’s Monsters, Inc. which gave audiences the iconic best friends Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman). This past summer, Pixar gave audiences a look at the formation of that friendship in Monsters University. Since opening in June, Monsters University has become the fourth-highest-grossing film of the year and is a frontrunner in the Oscar race for Best Animated Feature. Monsters University releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats on Tuesday, October 29th. In anticipation, I recently enjoyed an in-depth chat with first-time director Dan Scanlon and first-time producer Kori Rae, both of whom have years of experience and numerous credits at the studio. Here’s what they shared with me about developing and producing films at Pixar, dealing with the challenges of making a prequel, and crafting Monsters University.

Jackson Truax: Dan, you’re on the Pixar Senior Creative Team aka the famed “Brain Trust.” The people on said team are familiar directors of current and past Pixar films. What practical functions does the team serve? What involvement do other team members have on your film, and what is your role in theirs?

Scanlon: We get together and we screen our movies, our reels, when they’re in storyboard form, [throughout] the whole process actually…and critique the films or give notes. It’s very positive and constructive, but very honest. We’re pretty tough on each other sometimes. It’s not always that we’re trying to pitch a solution to the problem. We’re just identifying the issue. What we call “The spirit of the note.” Trying to say, “Something’s not working in the second act.” Then we try and work it out together. It’s really just an opportunity to have the support of each other. And also be helping each other’s films be better. A lot of times it’s just really nice to have fresh eyes on it.

JT: Kori, Monsters University is your first feature as producer at Pixar, but you’ve been there through a number of projects and really risen through the ranks. How did you end up at Pixar and what’s your journey there been?

Rae: I ended up at Pixar a little bit as a fluke twenty years ago. A friend of mine had gotten a job there and suggested I apply… I started out in the commercials group, when we used to produce commercials way back in the day… And really, really fell in love with the process. And fell in love with production. And so as soon as Toy Story came out and it was a success, we decided that maybe we’ll try it again. We closed down the commercials group and I went over to manage the animation department on A Bug’s Life. That was my first feature film experience was on A Bug’s Life… Rising through the ranks definitely makes me a better producer… It really helps give you that footing, so that you know exactly what has to happen to make the movie… I understand what it takes for a Production Manager to do their job. Because I did the job. I understand what an Associate Producer does. Because I did that job. So I think all of that helps me do my job better.

JT: Pixar has a long tradition of sequels dating back to 1999’s Toy Story 2. How did these characters from Monsters, Inc. come to be thought of as ones that could be revisited, and then in the context of a prequel?

Scanlon: There’s really no formula for what’s going to be a sequel… We got together, a big group of us…just to talk about if there was an idea there. Because, again, we wouldn’t go any further if we couldn’t find something that we really loved… We loved the relationship of Mike and Sulley. We knew that we wanted to do something with that… That’s where the prequel came from. We realized, the best way to understand someone’s relationship is to watch it grow. But I think that also the prequel thing was…how fun it would be to see Monster College. And lastly, Mike’s story… We knew we had an opportunity to tell a story that was very rare in movies, about a character that doesn’t get everything that they want in the end. And a prequel seemed like a great way to tell that story.

JT: Kori, how did this come to be your first feature film as producer?

Rae: As soon as I heard rumblings that they were thinking about making another film, I totally put my hat in the ring. I loved Monsters, Inc. I loved working on it. It was a great experience for me. I loved working with John [Goodman] and Billy [Crystal] and wanted to get back in there with them. So from there, I said, “Hey, I’d like to produce that.” We met and talked about it. So kind of early on, we became a team. And together we brought the writers on and started building the team from there… A lot of these films, because we’re doing a number of them at a time, a lot of it is about timing. And about what’s coming down the road and when do you need a gig… That’s part of it. So the timing happened to work out… And it was great.

JT: Monsters University is very much a friendship origin story that takes on a sort-of Bad News Bears feel. How did both of you, along with co-writers Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird, find the initial way into the story, and then figure out how it would be executed?

Scanlon: Story’s always tough, on any Pixar movie. I feel like every time we’re sort of reinventing the way we do it… We always knew we wanted the friendship story there… But we always loved Mike’s story… Sometimes in a movie, you can really understand your theme and be excited about your theme, it’s just coming up with the engine to get to that theme… I think the Bad News Bears/ Oozma Kappa part of the story was the thing that locked in for us, “This is now the way to tell that story.” Those characters of the Oozma Kappa also helped us, because I think Mike and Sulley are at their best when they’re taking care of someone. With Boo out of the movie, the Oozma Kappa subbed in as these sort of naïve children that Mike and Sulley could be the parents of. That’s kind of how we stumbled upon that story. Each Pixar movie, it’s sort of a weird, circuitous path to get to the story.

JT: Kori, what’s your involvement in those initial story stages?

Rae: I spend a lot of that time listening and paying attention. I’m there, not so much as a creative contributor necessarily, but to make sure that Dan has all the pieces that he needs. And that things are working out. Do we need input from one of the other directors? Or are we at a point where maybe we should run this by Andrew [Stanton], because Andrew’s really great at structure? Let me see if I can get an hour with Andrew, or something like that. It’s looking at what the needs of the film are, and the director. And seeing if there’s anything I can do to help get to the next level.

JT: Monsters University sets up the friendship between Mike and Sulley, as well as their relationship with Randall and the presence of Monsters Inc. What were the challenges in deciding how far the prequel should go, in specifically setting up or referencing things that appeared in Monsters, Inc.?

Scanlon: We wanted to have fun with some of the original characters that we loved. But we didn’t want to overdo it. We didn’t want to have “Every character from the first movie goes to Monsters University.” They had to earn their way into the story. The little cameos and things that we had, they had to fit into that world. But for the most part, we wanted to…connect to the first film. But we also really wanted this to be its own film. And to tell its own story. And not be, in any way, a rehashing of the first movie. So we really thought about it as its own movie, with an original story and theme.

JT: At the beginning of the film, the audience thinks Mike and Sulley are going to meet right away and become fast friends. They spend most of the film in conflict with each other, which allows for some great drama, as well as comedy. How did you decide on that approach and know that the audience would want to see two iconic friends at odds with each other?

Scanlon: I think we just found it was the most interesting, dramatic way to tell the story, to see these guys not get along… We really wanted to change these characters, and watch these characters turn each other into who they are in the next film. Because that’s just what happens with best friends. They kind of make you who you are. But it was a little bit of a gamble. Sulley is pretty much a jerk at the beginning of the movie. We weren’t sure how that would go over. But it felt like the right thing to do… When we first recorded John and Billy together, I felt relieved when I heard them argue with each other. On the page, I was a little worried that it would be unappealing or annoying. But, even when they’re arguing, it’s sort of funny and they had that same charisma. That was a day I had a big sigh of relief of, “This is going to be fun to watch.”

JT: One of the things for which Pixar has been historically famous is their attention to story, and not being afraid to throw out entire versions of films and start over at various stages of development. Were there a lot of variations of this story as it was being developed? What were some of the biggest changes, and some of the things that stayed throughout?

Scanlon: There were lots of versions of this film… Every movie goes through this. We were no exception. We made numerous versions of the movie… We made versions where Sulley was the main character. And we really followed his story more. But we discovered, because Mike’s story in that version was still the same, it was overpowering whatever we gave Sulley to do, because it was the heart of the movie. Because it was the part that we all truly believed in. It felt like we were all just creating drama for Sulley. And it didn’t seem right. Sulley was a dental student at one point… We were going for a story about a big monster that wasn’t talented at scaring. He needed Mike’s help. It just felt false. It felt like his character design suggests a guy who’s an amazing scarer… We did versions of the movie where Mike and Sulley met in the fourth grade, as is suggested in Monster, Inc., to try and stay true to that line. But it was a very different movie. It felt like you met them as kids, and then you skipped ahead to them meeting as college students. It felt like a waste of time. We did a number of versions of the movie.

Rae: And a lot of scenes that were cut.

Scanlon: Luckily, a lot of them are on the DVD, so we can finally share our embarrassment.

JT: Kori, as the story keeps being rewritten and overhauled at every stage, how does that affect your job? How protective are you with the story development, versus figuring out how much every rewrite will affect the schedule and budget and all of those things down the line?

Rae: It’s a push-pull kind of thing. But at the core, you have to do what’s right for the movie. You have to do whatever it takes to makes the best movie possible. So that’s kind of the fun – is saying, “We don’t have time to do another version. But we have to. Can we figure out how to keep the production engine moving forward while we’re reboarding all of act two?” That’s the fun of producing, in my mind, is that type of problem-solving, but never losing sight of what is needed to make a great film. We’ll stop production if need be. If we have to put on the brakes and take time to focus on the story, we’ll do it.

JT: Pixar has a reputation for being a fun place to work, but also one where people work extremely hard. What’s the best example on this film, of a scene that needed to be cracked either in story or animation or elsewhere, and artists stayed at the office around the clock to make it work?

Rae: It happens a lot in certain cycles. We have these interim screenings. And every time we’re heading towards one of those screenings…in the early days you’re mostly impacting story and editorial. And those are the departments that are burning the candle at both ends and we’re working weekends and pushing just to try and get as much in as possible… So in the early days, you’re really focusing on a couple of departments. And then once you get into production…one of the most high-pressure situations is preparing for an audience preview. Because you’re also trying to get in extra shot work. So you’re trying to get in shots that are animated or shots that are lit, as well as new versions of the sequences that are still in story reel. It’s all-hands on deck. You’re really pushing and making tiny, tiny choices and fixes on which shots or which stage of a shot ends up in a preview. And every one of those decisions is really important and affects the overall screening. The preview screenings…require a lot of [overtime] and big deadline type-stuff.

JT: Pixar has always been known for really inspired casting of actors and getting affecting performances. Obviously, Billy Crystal, John Goodman, and Steve Buscemi were pre-cast, but how did you decide whom to approach for the other roles?

Scanlon: We really write the character on the page first. We don’t really have an actor in mind until later the game. Even after we’ve designed the character a lot of times. We have great casting directors who will bring suggestions. We’ll bring suggestions to the table. We’ll really listen to their voices looking at only the character design itself. A lot of times, we don’t want to know the name of the actor or actress at all. We just play it cold and look and see, “Does it fit what that character needs to be?” If that character is supposed to be studious, then does that voice match that? Does it bring a little bit more to that character? Does it fit in that body of the design? As much as we can, we try not to get swayed by who that person is. Because it can be intoxicating when they say, “Brad Pitt is here. Do you want him to do a voice?” And you think, “”Well, I’d love to meet Brad Pitt.” But we really try not to do that. We try and think, “Is it the right person for this part?”

JT: Pixar directors talk a lot about how each time out the craft changes as the technology evolves. What were the biggest advances in computer animation or other technologies since the last projects on which you both had worked?

Rae: It was a couple of things. One was we had the ability to populate the world with as many characters as we needed to. We wouldn’t have been able to have as many varied background characters back in the last film, certainly back on Monsters, Inc. or even during Toy Story 3 time or Cars 2… We had to do a certain amount of work that used new tools in order to create all the characters. We also had a new lighting tool on this film. We had Global Illumination, which we made specifically for the film. A couple of our front-end technical guys came to me at the beginning of the film and said, “We want to do this new thing. Others studios are starting to use it. We want to do it on this film.” So they developed the tool on the film. It was also used in the short The Blue Umbrella… It really impacted the story. Because Dan and Dice [Tsutsumi], the Lighting Art Director, really used it to help…tell the story using lighting.

JT: Randy Newman has long been one of America’s best songwriters, and has enjoyed such a prolific and acclaimed relationship with Pixar. What’s the process of working with him on a Pixar film at this point, and a prequel at that?

Rae: It’s great. Obviously, he’s a pro, an amazingly talented and gifted writer. But it’s also a little terrifying. We basically meet with him. We spot the film. Dan talks about the emotion of each sequence. And what beats are important emotionally. And what emotions are happening. And then Randy goes away. And we show up on a stage. We hear it with a 106-piece orchestra for the first time. It’s always magic. But it’s also a little terrifying.

Scanlon: Sometimes he’ll do a rough sketch first. A lot of times, he wants to hear it the way it’s meant to be heard. It is really exciting. You get to see that he adds this new element to the story. You’ve been living with the story for so long. And then suddenly the music kicks in. There’s a whole new level of heart or humor or fear that you were going for in the scene that he’s understood and now put into the film.

JT: For the first film, Billy Crystal and John Goodman recorded a lot of their dialogue together. You mentioned they did some of that on this film, as did Sean Hayes and Dave Foley playing the two-headed monster Terri and Terry, respectively. Is that something you’ve tried or would want to do with a cast on a broader scale?

Scanlon: No, not really. It’s not always the best way to work… But in the case of Sean and Dave, because they literally are the same character, it was the perfect way to work. And also because they’re really funny and great with improvising. The same is true with John and Billy. They just have a charisma and a chemistry together that whenever they’re together in the room, it elevates the performance quite a bit. Beyond that, it’s tough to imagine more people in the room. Just because of the nature of how animation works, I don’t know how that would go. But it’s something you look at when you’re working on a film, “Would this be worth trying? Is this a good idea?”

JT: When you’re making a movie at Pixar, there must be a sense out of the gate that it’s going to open to a massive theater count and met with incredible anticipation and excitement by audiences. Is that a galvanizing feeling, or is it more daunting?

Scanlon: You get some and you lose some. I think you have some fear of living up to the first film, and making sure that you do right by the fans of that film. But then you also get a little bit. Even when you’re in the hard times of trying to make the movie work, it’s nice when you tell people what you’re working and they say, “Oh! I’m excited to see that.” You have a welcome invitation to come into the house, even when you don’t have any reason to be there.

JT: One of the great things Pixar has been able to do is take characters both in this universe as well the Toy Story gang and keep bringing them back on-screen in animated shorts or TV specials. Are there any plans to bring either the new or recurring characters for this film?

Scanlon: We do have a short, Party Central… We just don’t know exactly where it’s landing yet. But it’s a really funny short that features Mike and Sulley and the Oozma Kappa team. It takes place roughly after the movie… It’s awesome. We’re just finalizing where it will be. But we’re all really excited about it.

JT: Monsters University is a frontrunner in the Oscar race for Best Animated Feature. Pixar has now won seven Oscars in that category, but why it is important that this film be recognized? What would an Oscar nomination or win mean to both of you personally, as well as the franchise and Pixar on a broader scale?

Scanlon: All of it is such an honor to even be considered for this right now. But we’re really proud of the movie. Because we love the story of Mike… At Pixar we’re really proud of this film and would love to share with people… The amount of work the crew puts into this film over the course of five years. It would certainly be an honor.

Rae: It would be great to get something to honor the crew. It’s really about them. None of this would exist without the crew. And this was a challenging film. Again, they’re all challenging. But people really had to step up. We had a first-time director, a first-time producer. And a really great team that rallied together and worked to make a really great film. So I think it would be awesome for them.