Exclusive Interview : Up Producer/Director

The Disney / Pixar juggernaut continues in to its tenth film, and so too the hype and expectation of its previous successes.

‘Up’ is the story of a 78-year-old balloon salesman, Carl Fredricksen who fulfills his lifelong dream of an adventure into the wilds of South America, with the only resources he has available, some ten thousand balloons, which he ties to his house, taking him Up and away, but not before it also takes with him an overly-optimistic nine year old named Russell.

Moviehole’s Tim Johnson was one of only a few people to see the first half of this unfinished film at Disney’s New York theater, which is due for release in Australia on June 4th, and also had the opportunity to talk to director Pete Docter and producer, Jonas Rivera.

Q: Given that you step in to ‘fantasy’ pretty early on, did that become a concern, how much you can get away with?
Pete: Yeah, definitely. There were points in the construction of this film where we thought, ‘whoa, this is going way too far’. We had some even farther out stuff, where we pulled back on. But I think overall, we very consciously made the very beginning of the film this sort of an emotional foundation on which you build the wackiness. If you just start with whacky, then you kind of walk out with these very vaporous things in your head. But if you have that foundation of emotional relatability for the character, then hopefully, it all makes a little more sense.
Jonas: We used to say, this is a movie, even visually, design-wise, where a house can float away, but it’s also a movie that has emotional loss, and nostalgia, and memories and so forth. So it’s trying to find that balance.

Q: Now in most movies, old people are funny, because they’re old, but you have the old guy the hero and we’re sympathetic. Why did you choose an old man as the central character?
Pete: He just seemed entertaining to us. The way I start out, Bob Peterson is the writer and co-director, he and I just sat in a room and started throwing ideas out. Like, ‘What interests you? What elements would make a good film?’ and a crusty, grouchy old man really feels appealing to me and to Bob, and we just felt like there was a lot of entertainment possibility there. Looking at George Booth cartoons in the New Yorker and there’s a rich history of grouchy old men characters.
Jonas: Spencer Tracy.
Pete: Walter Matthau. We just felt like it had really rich possibilities in terms of entertainment. And also, it hadn’t been done. We hadn’t explored that avenue and one of the big things for us at Pixar is not treading on the same ground that we’ve done. And this being our tenth film, that’s getting harder and harder to do. To find stuff that we haven’t done already.

Q: Where in South America do they land?
Pete: They land, basically these real mountains are in the corner of where Brazil, meets Venezuela and Guiana. There’s a place called ‘Triple Point’, that’s actually on one of these tabletop mountains. So, it’s somewhere in that region. Of course, it’s all made up though.

Q: Did you go and see the location in person?
Pete: We did, we went down and we went and sketched and drew and slept up there. It was great.

Q: And what made you choose that location?
Pete: We needed somewhere in the story where Carl could get stuck without any outside help, with this kid, for him to change and grow as a character. Initially I thought, well my fantasy is always, get stuck on a tropical island in the middle of the South Pacific. But there have been so many movies that have been done like that already. We thought, ‘Where else can we go?’, and this idea is almost like an island in the sky, you know? It’s a tabletop mountain, and like I said, the real ones, there are ninety degree shear wall cliffs that are almost a mile high. There is no way to get up or down these things. There’s about a hundred of these mountains, and over half of them to this day have never been set foot on. And that’s where we get to go in the movie.
Jonas: It’s a cool place because also it felt adventurous; it felt like the ‘lost world’, it felt like, so detached, both visually and emotionally. But it also set the tone for making a good adventure.
Pete: Yeah.

Q: Did you take in any environmental messages into a movie set in such an untouched location?
Pete: Well, we’re never really trying to put forth any, like preaching to people, it’s more just about creating a lasting visual and emotional strength to the film. So, we don’t really have any sort of environmental message.

Q: What was your inspiration behind the (comical) voice of the mean dog?
Pete: Let’s see, well one of the things as a kid, you know having record players, and most kids don’t even know what record players are anymore, but the great entertainment of the afternoon was always just turn it on ‘forty five’ or ‘seventy eight’, so that something that’s supposed to sound regular suddenly sounds like chipmunks. And so we sort of hit on that idea of, ‘If the dog’s have these collars that translate their thoughts, what if one went wrong?’
Jonas: And to the guy that thinks he’s James Earl Jones, the Darth Vader guy, that’s the best guy to have it break on.

Q: Do you go in to one of your films trying to convey one particular meaning or message?
Pete: Well, one of the things, is that it’s set up, and you’ll see in the rest of the film, is that Carl worries that he’s missed out on this great adventure, travelling with his wife to South America. But what he comes to realize is that he did in fact, have a real, true adventure, and that is the relationship that the two of them shared together. And so that’s the theme of the film. As I say, that’s the emotional bedrock where all the entertainment takes place. But I feel like unless you have something like that, that hopefully resonates with the audience – I got know this guy Joe Grant, who was head of story on Dumbo and designed the wicked queen in Snow White and he was up until 97 years old, still working at Disney. But he would always say, ‘What are you giving the audience to take home?’ That was his way of saying, ‘What is that emotional nugget, that core thing that the film rests on?’ And hopefully that’s what we’re going for in this film.

Q: I’ve heard in Monsters Inc you originally had an old man discover a monster, and that was the plot line very early on – is this that old man, or did it change a lot in early stages?
Pete: Yeah, well in Monsters, he was about thirty; he wasn’t that old, in the original pitch. In this one, this has changed a lot, although, once it found its footing – I was looking at a graph from 2004, and it was pretty consistent.
Jonas: Structurally it’s the same.
Pete: Yeah, actually Russell was added later. It was originally just Carl and then he gets stuck with this bird and a dog, and then Russell got added. It’s weird tracking these things.

Q: Was he always an old guy?
Jonas: You had that drawing…
Pete: Yeah, I did I really early drawing of this grouchy guy these colorful, happy, fun balloons, smiling and stuff, and I just thought he really contrasted that.

Q: Did you have any worries about the reaction in Brazil, where a priest attached himself to a thousand balloons and actually died?
Pete: Yeah, ‘Please do not try this at home!’ Yeah, we were well in to this film by the time that happened. And since then, and before it, there have been other people that – I know there’s one guy who does it every year, he tied balloons to a chair, and he’s successfully, I think he’s done five or six trips, and he’s able to control it in such a way that he’s successful. So yeah, I don’t know.

Q: How many balloons do you think Carl would actually need to lift the house?
Jonas: We tried to actually do the physics, do the math of what the number would be.
Pete: Something absurd.
Jonas: I think there’s ten thousand balloons that we built to actually pull the house. But it like, ten billion that it would actually take to pull a house.

Q: Are there nods to other films in here? Maybe it’s my imagination, but the Wizard of Oz with the house, and Castle in the Sky. Was any of that a conscious decision?
Pete: Well, it’s mostly unconscious. Any time we get too close to those, we try and steer away. Undoubtedly everybody has things that percolate up.

Q: How many people worked on the script, and for how long?
Pete: Let me see, Bob Peterson started in 2004. Then we also had John McCarthy who wrote The Station Agent and more recently The Visitor, he co-directed those. And we worked with him for about three months. So, it was the three of us that wrote the script.
Jonas: There was probably three and a half years of writing.
Pete: I mean, when I say these films take five years, it’s mostly the writing. The actually production is only, what, about a year?
Jonas: Yeah. We animate it in eleven months
Pete: So, it’s mostly the writing. Getting the story right, and the characters. We re-write, and re-write some of these sequences thirty or forty times, before we land on one that finally works. Which is probably the same in any medium you know? Live action – I’ll bet if you tracked it from the initial thought, all the way through all the writers drafts, submitting to studios and things, it’s probably about the same.
Jonas: We may be a little more reactive as we make these things frame by frame.

Q: How do you determine what works? How do you decide, ‘This is it!’
Pete: Well, you kind of hypnotize yourself, like you’ve been writing and working on this so closely with every frame, and then you have to step back and go, ‘OK, I’m in the audience, I’m with kids running around, and the popcorn and everything, how does this feel? You just have to have an open heart to emotionally react or not. And hopefully you know your controlling idea of the movie and you know what this scene is supposed to do, to make that character grow and change, and you just have to be a good judge of whether that’s working or not. And then, ultimately we have these screenings with other filmmakers at work. So, Brad Bird, John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton will all come in to a room, just like this, we’ll screen the movie and immediately afterwards, we’ll have a notes session and they’ll say, ‘I was lost here, I was bored in this section’, or whatever. And that’s a really great thing to have. These opinions you trust.
Jonas: It’s a good question, ‘How do you know?’ because I think one of the things that happened on this film early on, is you screen this thing on storyboard. It’s a tremendous leap of faith, you know you’re looking through the storyboards in scratch and a couple of sound effects, and you’re trying to picture the motion picture you’ll eventually make. And it’s hard to do. But then when you hear the notes, and you kind of use the studio, you feel the room to react to it as an audience. And I’ll never forget sitting in the notes session and no one, not Brad Bird, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, no one questioned the premise. No one said, ‘You know it’s weird when he flies away’ they were fluffing it. ‘You know what he should do? He should think this, or say this’ and I just kind of sat back and observed these guys put it together and that’s when I knew, that’s cool, they reacted to it as an audience and they’re ‘plus-ing’ it as filmmakers. And so to me, that’s when you know alright, let’s pour cement and start making it. It started to feel like it would hold together. Because you get very close to it. Two years in to it you go, ‘Oh my god, this guy’s flying his house, what have we done! Let’s keep going!’

Q: Pixar has such an incredible success rate, do you feel the pressure to step it up with each release?
Pete: Yeah, there definitely is that moment when you go to the Wall-E wrap party and we’re screening it, and enjoying myself, and then it starts to sink in, ‘Where next?!’ It’s got to be at least as good as this.
Jonas: I’ll tell you the truth. We act cool, like we don’t, but we do!

Q: What about your casting choices?
Pete: Well we wrote this part and we needed somebody who could be a grouchy old man, but just as important, as we’ve discovered in our other films, we needed somebody who could really do the comedy. So of course, Lou Grant is a great character and working with Ed Asner he’s definitely brought this sharp comic timing. So he’s been just perfect. We do try to tailor the role to the actor. I mean, generally on the films, the first recording session we end up not using much of, because we’re reacting to them. We’re learning what’s the cadence of the actor’s delivery, what sort of words would they use? What makes them unique? And we end up rewriting the parts to the actor.
Jonas: The kid was interesting, Russell, is played by a little boy named Jordan, who we went out on a casting call looking for this kid, and we auditioned a lot of actors and one of the things we found was that almost the actors were too polished. So, one of the kids that came in had his brother, and his brother came up and just started talking about soccer practice, or karate, and we were like, ‘That’s the kid!’ He just sounded so conversational and natural, and authentic. And we really wanted it to be an authentic kid, and he was just non-stop talking. It’s hard, because he wasn’t an actor, I mean, these guys had to really craft it, almost syllable by syllable in some cases. But we think he has that charm.
Pete: Yeah, it’s a little bit like Thumper in Bambi, he’s not what you’d expect a little bit.
Jonas: That’s the story, a casting directors would’ve said, ‘Get that kid out of here’, and the animators would have said, ‘No, that’s the kid!’ It’s kind of horrible.
Pete: And it was the same with Jordan, I didn’t care what he was saying, I was just smiling listening to his voice.

Q: His poor brother!
Pete: I know!
Jonas: Yeah, he’d come to the sessions and play.

Q: And this is a 3-D film right?
Pete: Yes, it will be.

Q: How does making a 3-D film impact the production?
Pete: Well, in a way, we’ve been making 3-D films all of Pixar’s history. Just that we’ve only ever shown it through one eye. But the way the computer works, it’s very much like a real set, it’s easy to just move the camera a little bit and render the other eye which makes it so real. So, because of the way we approach it, it hasn’t really affected us. It’s just another crayon in the crayon box, another tool to be able to tell the story. But the most important thing, after the ‘wow’ factor of, ‘Ohh, look it’s 3-D’ that’s about three minutes worth, and then what do you do for the rest of the ninety minutes, you know. We have to entertain people, it’s the story and the characters.
Jonas: I think what we’ve found also, is that a shot that’s composed cinematically how we want it, works in both, 2-D and 3-D. And we’ve found, even in Ratatouille, it held up really well, so we were encouraged by that. So, we formed this team at Pixar who literally just follow us along, in the pipeline, who take every shot, and make notes, and we look at the whole thing as a sequence, and it looks really cool. It’s holding up.

Q: Wall-E was considered a somewhat ‘art’ film, because there was forty five minutes without dialogue, and there’s a sequence in Up that also runs without dialogue, do you fear that while the films may get critical acclaim, you may lose the younger spectrum of the audience?
Pete: I’m sure there are some people that are concerned about that. But, I think for us, we’re mainly concerned, and we kind of have to be, just concerned with entertaining ourselves. We’re trying to make these movies for us, rather than second guess what people may or may not like. When you do that, of course every movie is different, and as you as a filmmaker change, films change. But we haven’t really ever purposely put in any character, or any element of the story with the express intent of opening it up to other people in the audience. We’ve been conscious of course, you know, we have kids, and during the making of it, I go, ‘OK, so what’s my daughter going to think of this sequence? Is she going to be scared by it, or interested in it?’ so there’s part of it, where your brain’s firing on that wavelength. We’re trying to layer things basically.

Q: If you didn’t have the kid in the movie, it really would be entirely a movie about an old man.
Pete: Well, my daughter’s favorite character in this, is the dog. And my son likes the bird. So I kind of think that they’ll gravitate to the animal characters, maybe almost as much as Russell.

Q: You said that you’re not a guy that likes to be around a lot of people, is that part of your personality, that extension of yourself shown through Carl?
Pete: Yeah, very much so. By the end of the day, my wife is an extrovert, and so she’s been inside with the kids all day. By the end of the day, I’m exhausted, I’ve been around people, it’s drained everything from me. I want to go home and sit by myself in the corner and look at the wall, and she’s like, ‘C’Mon, we’re going out!’
Jonas: ‘Where Pete? He’s flying away with the balloons!’

Q: Are your kids the first people you test screen this on?
Pete: You know, the first real screening, is to the people at Pixar, but then on this one, and we’ve done this on all the films, somewhere towards the last year or so, we show it, and it’s a great gift to us as filmmakers to be able to sit in the audience, with people who’ve never seen it, and just get a sense of whether they’re engaged or not, and still have a chance to be able to make adjustments after that. It’s really cool, it’s like taking it on the road.
Jonas: Yeah, sit and react with the audience.
Pete: And we did make a few adjustments on this.

Q: Any changes you can highlight for us?
Pete: Well, one thing that pops in to my head, at the beginning when young Carl is ‘here’s Charles Muntz flying his famous blimp’ with the balloon. Ahh, that was just a little softer, and based on the audience reaction, we knew we wanted to get some laughs going. So we put in the gag of him whacking in to the stump and then going around it, and things like that. And we did some trims here and there, that sequences we felt were good, but sitting with an audience you realize, ‘OK, we’re getting it already’ we don’t need to go as long. So, stuff like that.

Q: Were there any technological advancements on this film from previous releases?
Jonas: That’s a good question.
Pete: Yeah, we’ve had these technological steps where, we’ve never done hair before, or we’ve never done cloth before. On this one I think it was basically the look. We have trained these TD’s, the Technical Directors know how to do almost everything. And we said, ‘Alright on this film, we want you to do that, but we want you to do it wrong.’ We have a character who is instead of basically six heads tall, he’s three heads tall. He’s got these short, little, stumpy arms. ‘So, the way cloth would behave, ignore the way it works in real like. Here’s how I want it to look in this film.’ And so the look was really hard to achieve, both artistically and technically. Hopefully, it’s not obvious, it’s kind of invisible, but that was the hardest thing.
Jonas: Yeah, we tend to, at Pixar, to really build everything and every detail, to the point where it looks almost real, or I’ve heard people say, ‘In Cars that looked real.’ And that’s very cool, and so all the Technical Directors came to the show and we said, ‘Alright now I don’t want real, I want to do caricature, like what’s a simplified version of that, what’s a simpler shape – just get to the essence of things.’ And the cloth is a good example of how they got it physically working right and it took a lot of engineering, and now we want to preserve the shape language of the animation and preserve that line. And so, we had to break physics and invent the physics. And so it’s become actually, one of the harder technical challenges, because we’re really trying to bring it together with art, and really come up with something different. A little more bold, a little more thrown back to the older animated movies of Disney. You know, with the color and the shape and the tone of it.
Pete: Yeah, we’re hoping that this film is, at the same time as an extension of where the Pixar movies have gone, and at the same time reaching back in to the past and grabbing on to those things that we love from Dumbo, and Lady and the Tramp and those kind of films. Hopefully that’s a bit of a flavor of an action-adventure, but a little softer, maybe than some of the movies that have been done today.

Q: Thank you very much for your time gentlemen.
Pete: No, thank you.
Jonas: Thank you.