There is no doubt in my mind, Pete Docter is a genius. He has created the perfect film. Up is heartfelt, beautiful, entertaining, and absolutely hilarious. It’s the perfect combination of drama, comedy, and action. I think it’s safe to say that I may be his (and Dug the Dog’s) biggest fan, and I have no doubt that after this weekend you will be too.
Pete was busy up in San Francisco, but he took the time to talk over the phone to talk to a few journalists about his upcoming film. While talking to Pete, you see where his film get’s it’s heart and edge from, he is so humble and genuine, but he’s definitely a unique character himself.
Check out what he has to say about his upcoming film below…
In most kid’s films children laugh at certain jokes and adults laugh at others, but in Up, everyone seemed to be laughing at once. What this something you set out to try and achieve?
Docter: That’s cool. That’s good. I think it’s probably because most of the laughs in the movie come out of character that—like when Russell says, “You were talking to a rock.” It’s not especially like a funny gag or anything; it’s just knowing the character and the sort of truthfulness of it and maybe that’s it, but I like that. That’s cool.
Are there directions you go that you feel is too adult that you have to pull back from or vice versa? How did you find a flow that would work for both?
Docter: There’s kind of no rules to these things. As we go each movie kind of defines itself and finds what it needs to become. I don’t think we’re talking down to kids or anything. We’re just kind of making movies that we ourselves want to see and so far, hopefully, that will continue. That it seems to resonate with what audiences like as well.
I think in this particular case, we knew we got to some really goofy wacky places and a lot of comedy, a lot of action and adventure. For me, as I watch movies, the films that have all that I might enjoy perfectly fine while I’m watching. But then once I leave the theater the movie kind of evaporates. The ones that I find that stick with me are the ones that have a deeper kind of emotional resonance. We’re always trying to find those kind of hooks in our movies even though the film might be about bugs or fish or monsters, that there’s some identifiable relatable thing that we see in our own lives that these characters on the screen are going through and that’s certainly what we were after with Carl.
Coming out of the screening the other night, the two things I heard being discussed the most were how tastefully the story managed to deal with real life trauma and I was wondering if you’d care to comment on how that came about?
Docter: Sure. The first one was the married life sequence; that was our name for it. It’s just showing our character’s lives together, and we somehow had to pack—we knew the story didn’t really start until Carl lifts his house off. And so we needed to pack all this full rich lived life into as short of time as possible. Of course, we started long and cut back and cut back, just pruned it until we found what we felt like was the essence of things.
I also wanted it to feel almost like Carl’s memory of the events in his life so the saturation of color and even the way we shot things, or a little more just kind of as though we’re standing back presenting it instead of experiencing it quite as much. I think all of that contributed to the emotion of it. Anyway, I’m very proud of that sequence, and I think I credit Bob Peterson and Ronnie del Carmen, Bob being the writer and Ronnie, who storyboarded that. It’s beautiful compositions that he was able to capture.
Two part question on your creative process. How did you and Bob come up with this story and the adventures, and while you were writing, do you visually design as you write?
Docter: Actually, the answer to both of those questions are related. We started by talking and making lists and drawing. And one of the first key images that came out was this drawing I’d done of this super grouchy hexicolored and green, this sour guy, with his really wrinkly expression on his face holding these happy fun colorful balloons. Something about the contrast of those two things made us laugh and feel as though there was some potential there. And so that’s kind of the genesis of the idea.
And then we were also experimenting with a lot of escape kind of ideas, and this floating house was just very poetic and interesting and appealing. So we put the grouchy guy in the floating house with balloons and then just kind of answering the questions of where is he going and where’s he coming from and why. That’s what led to the story.
And did you have adventurous dreams in it like that as a child yourself?
Docter: Yes. I grew up in Minnesota. And there was a kind of creek area, and I remember going back there and pretending I was stomping through the jungle and snakes. I shot a couple of super-eight movies with my friends back there and pretended it was the wilds of South America.
How did you decide on magenta as Elle’s signature color? That’s not something that anybody normally would go to for a color.
Docter: Yes. We just felt like it represented her. It was a real active kind of feel yet not so hyper. There was a sense of kind of richness. I mean this is all very subjective of course. But it just felt very mature in a way. So it was like— I think just giving a little bit of coolness to it made it a little more regal or something and yet still very vibrant and energetic.
And more than just magenta, we tried to use saturation for her so that when she’s around we really amp the greens and the reds and everything. And then as she passes away, everything de-saturates and it becomes browns and grays. We used the logic to explain that that it’s years later now as we see Carl. But it’s also just emotionally correct.
The films in Pixar’s cannon seem to be getting more and more intellectual and mature with films like Ratatouille, Wall-E and now Up. I’m wondering if you guys are worried at all about perhaps having these themes go over the heads of children because there maybe the coming-to almost too mature and too good sort of film?
Docter: On this film, I think, in a way we feel this is a return to the classic Disney films that we grew up with, Dumbo or Lady and the Tramp or films that you have these great sense of fun, Pink Elephants on Parade and Flying with the Crows and then couple that with these wonderful tender scenes of Baby Mine with the trunks coming out of the—Mom locked up. I think it’s because of that balance that those movies kind of stay with you and that’s what we were going for in this film.
And so far, we’ve screened it for quite a number of audiences. And I think there are certain things that hit adults that kids don’t really register, the married life sequence where we show their whole life together. Kids kind of—it’s not like they run up and down the aisles or anything. They sit and watch but I don’t think it affects them in the same way.
But then you get to the humor and the dogs and Russell and kids are laughing right along with the adults. It seems to be playing pretty universal to a wide spectrum.
Since you’ve named a number of classic films, which films inspired you to make Up?
Docter: We didn’t put any intentional omages in the way we—like some films, like Toy Story we had little shots that would echo Indian Jones or whatever. In this film we tried to just keep it its own thing, but of course, there are a lot of influences. We have Wizard of Oz and The Station Agent. I don’t know if you guys have seen that, but a great film about—
And it’s pretty much the story of Carl as this loner, a bunch of loners who come together and become kind of an odd-ball family and that’s Carl’s story. Casablanca is another influence of the sort of dead man who rejoins life and really truly starts living again. So there’s influences all over.
We look at things like Going in Style, which is Art Carney and George Burns. It’s these three older men who decide to rob a bank. It’s a great movie. It’s really fun. And the way it’s shot, I think, influenced this film quite a lot in the framing of all of those enclosing Carl after his wife passes away keeping him boxed in and enclosed until he floats away. There’s all sorts of influences for sure.
What was your number one influence in terms of animation when you were growing up?
Docter: Of course, the Disney films. I think I saw every one as it was re-released for sure, as well as, the Muppets. The Muppet Show was a big influence on me and just because of the sense of quirkiness, the fun and especially the sense of very specific characters that they created. It really transcended puppets. I think, these guys became, for me, very deep characters. They have a lot of sides to them, and they’re really amazingly well-defined characters.
What was your favorite early Disney film?
Docter: Now, for sure, it’s Dumbo. And I just love the sense of simplicity of it. I think the thing they did on a lot of those early films, that we’re still trying to find out exactly how they did this, is to spend enough time with situations like the plot is simple enough that it allows time for characters to just be characters and have fun with them. We’re always trying to find moments like that in our films.
The voice for Dug was absolutely perfect and it was done by Bob Peterson who is the head writer and co-director on the film, did you just hear him talking and know he was Dug? How did you pick the voices?
Docter: Those are mysterious things, because it’s almost like they leapt out of the brain of Bob Peterson. He just—I think he conjured up dogs that he had owned in the past.
A lot of us who have pets we end up doing voices for our pets. As they sit we’re eating dinner. Our dog tends to offer to help us eat dinner quite often. And I think in the case of Bob, he just started doing the voice as he was writing it and it just seemed like that’s perfect. I don’t know where that stuff comes from. It’s just kind of one of those mysterious I guess.
But I love the fact that they didn’t speak in the traditional way. Because in animation you can just make anything speak if you want, but you have a really unique way of giving them a voice in the film.
Docter: Yes and that was a decision that we made early on. We talked about should their lips as well. But it made more sense once we came up with the concede of his collar, that would be somehow tapping into the dog’s brain and translating their thoughts that the dog would just act like a normal dog. Then we had the fun of just observing real dogs and picking up on little behaviors of dogs.
I love the scene where Dug—he sits and then he says, “Shake,” and then, “Speak,” and then he says, “Hello there.” And the characters both go—and the dog stops like what happened and then he goes back to panting. That’s all just real life dog behavior that we were able to get in there. That was so much fun to do.
It was; it was really fun to watch them and their love/hate relationship with squirrels.
Docter Yes, I hate squirrels. Our current dog is named Bailey and she just can’t stand the things. She remembers from one walk to another where there was a squirrel yesterday that’s where we’ve got to stop and do a lot of sniffing.
It’s rare that you actually see the villain in a children’s movie being killed off, how did you manage to so that in a way that would be okay for children?
Docter: And then in terms of Muntz, it was like we experimented a lot with ways to sort of defeat him. I was never a big fan of killing him off necessarily. We tried versions where Carl was able to convince Muntz that maybe he should change or refocus his goal. But Carl didn’t have a lot of talking points and ammunition to talk to Muntz about. And it felt like you get through this big exciting chase, and then they’re standing around talking, and that just didn’t play very well.
So where we ended up with it, it’s almost like Muntz is the shadow side of Carl. It’s all kind of a standard way writers talk about movies. But Muntz is kind of where Carl would have gone had he been allowed to take it to the end of the line. He’s just so obsessed and in a sense in Carl because that part of him dies away. Then Muntz is a sort of symbol of that, he dies away. So Carl is left with letting go of the stuff and his old idea of what adventure is as personified by Muntz and instead embraces the present and connects with Russell.
Was there ever any discussion about just simply stranding Muntz someplace like hanging in a tree or something?
Docter: Yes, sure. We went through a lot of different options that way. But people just coming out of the theater on screening it here for ourselves, felt like, “Whoa, were you leaving it open for a sequel, that Muntz is going to come back and get the bird?” No, we wanted the sense of closure that when the bird goes off with the babies, we know everything’s going to be fine and there’s no danger.
It also—and sorry, this is a long answer. But I also really wanted to find a way to have Carl have one last goodbye to his house as it sinks down through the clouds. It was important then, therefore, to separate Muntz from that house and to feel closure that the bird is not going to be threatened and all that. That was the solution we came up with.
Disney Pixar’s 3-D adventure Up will premier in theaters on May 29th.