Monsters University is the rare prequel that can cast its leading men as college students without anyone batting an eye. That’s the beauty of animation, and it’s great that Billy Crystal and John Goodman could reprise their roles as Mike Wazowski and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan for this rather good little prequel. We got a chance to interview the duo about returning to their favorite animated characters.
Can you talk about working with Dan Scanlon, this director?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Dan is a hipster. Dan had a totally different energy than Pete Docter had, who was great. Dan is a young guy –
JOHN GOODMAN: He had great sensibility, and he’d read with you. If the other characters weren’t there, he reads with you. He’s got a good energy to feed off of.
BILLY CRYSTAL: Yeah, he was funny, too.
JOHN GOODMAN: And when you do something he don’t like, he gets a funny little look on his face.
BILLY CRYSTAL: Yeah, and we’d know not to do that.
What do you find to be the touchstone of the friendship of Mike and Sulley, what is it about the character that resonates with you?
JOHN GOODMAN: The fact that he’s a blowhard. No, I think the reason they work so well together is that they complete each other, in a way. I think Sulley really, really needs Mike Wazowski. It makes him complete, lets him know – lets the air out of him a little bit. Especially in this film, when they’re not completely formed monsters yet, they learn from each other. They learn how to adapt, how to let go of their pre-conceived notions of themselves and of the world. They’re good for each other.
BILLY CRYSTAL: For me, Mike is fearless. He just – he’s really the favorite character I’ve ever played in anything I’ve done. I’ve really missed doing him until Lasseter, at a party, came to me – it was at John’s 50th birthday party – and said “we have the idea. It’s a sequel, but it’s a prequel. They’re in college.” And he just walked away, but he left an idea, and I went oh, this is gonna be great. It was so fun to revisit them at this time in their lives. It was such a brilliant idea to put them in that time period where they’re about to become who they’re gonna become. That’s what was so interesting to me.
I love this guy to play, and playing it with John is phenomenal because we work together in the studio, and we can act together. It’s not just – we’re not just reading lines; we’re performing them, and we’re playing them, and we feel them. I think that’s why their relationship on screen is really great because it’s a real thing.
BILLY CRYSTAL: I have to admit, I was a little bit of a misfit. I was a film-directing major at NYU when – I’m still not sure why I became a directing major when I was really an actor and a comedian, but there was something that drew me to doing that. I had made a few films on my own, and I loved it. So I felt like I was a misfit, in a way, and out of it because all those other people – it was Oliver Stone, Christopher Guest, Mike McKean. It was a class of film people. Our professor was Marty Scorsese. So he – Marty was a graduate student – Mr. Scorsese, which is what I had to call him – which I still do, when I see him, ‘cause he gave me a C.
He was an intense – it was 1968-9 and ’70, and he was an intense guy, with hair down to here, a big beard and granny glasses. Who looked like that then? So I – he was so fluent in movies and passionate, and I really felt like I wanted to be in front of people still, so I was a little out of it.
JOHN GOODMAN: I ain’t never been in no college with famous people like Billy here. I was a drifter for a while. I just was desperate to fit in with a group. Really, I was swimming. I was lost, treading water, trying to find my way. I wanted to play football. It didn’t work out. I didn’t really know what I wanted until I found acting in a theater department, and then it just – everything fell into place, and I had a passion about something. Then, I started living my life.
BILLY CRYSTAL: Yeah, that’s how it was for me, too. Once I found a theater group, then you’re just – like a gym rat, but you’re a theater rat, and then that becomes your fraternity house. That becomes your family – extended family. I still see a lot of those people to this day because they owe me money. No, that really becomes your thing. In this movie, they find out who they are. That’s the most important element of this movie to me is well, Mike has a dream, and the dream may not work out, and then he has to readjust and recalibrate. He does that with the help of his friend, who tells him who he thinks he is, and he starts to believe it himself. So for me, that really happened then.
What kind of obstacles did you guys face to get where you wanted? ‘Cause we see these two characters have that right in their face. Did you have those moments of doubt, like this dream that I know I’m destined for might not happen?
BILLY CRYSTAL: I still have them. You still do.
JOHN GOODMAN: Yeah.
BILLY CRYSTAL: Every time we finish doing something, we don’t have something else – except him. He did 14 movies last year. You’re the new Michael Caine.
JOHN GOODMAN: Thank you very much.
BILLY CRYSTAL: I’m just a guy who can’t say no.
JOHN GOODMAN: A whore … uh-hum.
BILLY CRYSTAL: You constantly – we all do. We all have things, and we all – that’s what is so fascinating and frustrating and great about life is you’re constantly, in some ways, starting over all the time, and I love that. All right, I did that, but now – I don’t have a job now. Then, something happens, or you make something happen. This starts for them in this movie.
JOHN GOODMAN: How’d that go?
It’s a good movie. It seemed sort of influential on this, so my question is how does it feel to be on the other side of that equation, and did you re-watch the film before making this?
JOHN GOODMAN: No, I haven’t seen it for a while. I was pretty loose while I was making it. I had a lot of fun. It’s a great way to revisit college because obviously, I couldn’t do that in a non-animated way. It’s a good way to reflect back on how I was then and my wants and dreams and everything, which – and how you adapt to everything that changes you and which roads you take. I’m babbling like a fool right now, but that’s what I’ve always done is babbled my way through life.
Hi, guys. I was just wondering – obviously, you made Monsters, Inc. about ten years ago now. How has the experience of working with Pixar changed, or has it – is it just as cool as it was ten years ago?
JOHN GOODMAN: Before, we were talking – Billy was talking about – we were just flabbergasted by the fact that they could animate fur –
BILLY CRYSTAL: On the first one.
JOHN GOODMAN: – and animate hair. That was a big deal then. It just seems like they’ve gotten so much better with their technique. It’s constantly amazing. So the thrill is still there because they’re such wonderful storytellers, great writers, and everything is reality-based and grounded, so you can believe in it, and it makes it fun.
BILLY CRYSTAL: The difference was it’s maybe a little bit faster than before. They can do things a little quicker. But the imagination is even broader because they can do even more. I first saw the movie two weeks ago, and I was – sometimes, you just forget what you’ve done. Because we started about two years ago, I guess, and the imagery is phenomenal in this movie. The art design on the first movie was astounding, with the door sequence and the chase sequence. This has moments in the scare games that are – you almost take it for granted, but it took years for them to think these things through. The fact that they can do it – that obstacle course is a phenomenal segment.
Then little things, like the dramatic scene with us at the lake, when Mike goes into the real world at the camp and is not scary – when he’s at the lake, that’s – we acted that scene together in the booth. For a movie to have room for those two segments alone is kinda epic, I think.
After creating these great characters for the first film – Mike and Sulley – could you talk about going back now and re-creating them, but younger versions of them? Was that challenging for you, and did you have to do anything differently with your voices?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Well, we – the first day that we reported to work together, they showed us renderings of the guys. We just started laughing because oh, sure, make us look younger, given what we look like in the movie, and they do. He’s a little trimmer and a little slimmer. I’ve got this retainer, but there’s a little more youth in his eye. They just carry themselves differently. I don’t know what – it’s just subtle, but it’s there.
JOHN GOODMAN: With the voice thing, I thought I was gonna come in and talk like the kid from Our Miss Brooks – oh, hello – and it just happened – through a couple of passes, it just kinda happens organically. You pick up on other energies and the characters’ focuses, and it just happens. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s there.
In the movie, Sulley isn’t exactly the most prepared student on the first day of school. I’m sure while he was training with Mike; he had many times where he came up with excuses not to train or not to go to class. So as a student or parent or grandparent yourself, what are some of the best excuses you’ve heard not to go to school?
JOHN GOODMAN: Well, I used to – I was very elaborate. I would go to the nurse’s office and fill up a glass of water and – I was really good at fake vomiting, so I’d go to the nurse’s bathroom, do that, and then slam the water into the toilet bowl.
BILLY CRYSTAL: Do it now.
JOHN GOODMAN: Yeah, okay.
BILLY CRYSTAL: You gotta see this. It’s really amazing.
JOHN GOODMAN: That was an immediate ticket home. Marlon Brando used to take a thermometer and rub it on his leg, and then put it back in his mouth.
BILLY CRYSTAL: I just would fake the sore throat thing. I can’t – Ma, I can’t – I don’t know how this happened. Yesterday, I was fine. Then, she’d go okay, and I’d go thank you – oh.
JOHN GOODMAN: I really wanna go to school, though. Well, I don’t think you should. All right; it’s up to you.
How did you both enjoy sharing the story of the Oozma Kappa characters, turning them from rejects into winners?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Well, it’s a story that you’ve seen in other movies. It’s the underdog, and it’s great, and it works, and I loved that Mike sees something in them, but at the same time, he finds out something about himself. That happens also through Sulley. You’re the one who did this. You’re the one. So they’re endearing, lovely characters, beautifully voiced. I have to tell you something. I saw it two weeks ago with the cast. I didn’t know a lot of these people were in the movie. Sean Hayes is fantastic in the movie. Charlie Day is great in the movie. Alfred Molina is great. Helen (Mirren) is phenomenal. They didn’t tell me that all these people were in the movie, so it was like going to college on the first day and having all these new roommates. It was fantastic.
JOHN GOODMAN: I can’t compete with these people.
BILLY CRYSTAL: It was great. They’re beautifully animated, and they’re really appealing. The great thing about this movie, too, is that – in my opinion – the first one came out 2001. John and I – I remember we hosted several screenings for kids who had just lost their parents or uncle or a father or something. Remember, in New York, we did all these screenings at the theaters on 33rd Street. They kept – round the clock. We would go out and introduce the movie and so on. All of those kids, and kids throughout the world, were 6 or 7 years old when that movie came out. They’re now the same age that Mike and Sulley are now, so they look at it in a totally different way. I was at USC a couple weeks ago, and we screened the movie for about 400 film students. They went berserk because it’s them. It’s them. They’re making decisions in their lives, like Mike and Sulley are in this.
These guys are – they’re very important characters to them – to students – and now to little kids. It’s really interesting, of all the things I’ve been fortunate to do, that this guy, Mike, is my favorite character I’ve ever done, but he also has a toe-hold – a claw-hold in people that they mean something to them.
BILLY CRYSTAL: My Aunt Sheila was terrifying because there was the napkin in the mouth, you’ve got something on your face, dear – that thing. Let me just scratch that off your face.
JOHN GOODMAN: Earl Scheib.
BILLY CRYSTAL: Let me sand your cheek. I still don’t love the darkness, though I’ve learned to smile in it a little bit now and then. I’m just sorta – the unknown has always been a little scary when you think about those things, especially as you get older. Boy, that got heavy.
JOHN GOODMAN: Yeah. I was just run-of-the-mill Frankenstein. Yeah, scared the heck out of me.
BILLY CRYSTAL: Oh, and then when Psycho came out.
JOHN GOODMAN: But I love those movies. I love those old Universal movies, especially when they’d switch off and Bela Lugosi would play Frankenstein.
BILLY CRYSTAL: They’d switch up.
JOHN GOODMAN: It’s just not a fit.
BILLY CRYSTAL: They just got bored that day.
JOHN GOODMAN: It just didn’t work, yeah.
BILLY CRYSTAL: Beware the hour of the wolf. But Psycho –Mr. Hitchcock knew what he was doing. That was really – to this day, it’s still terrifying. It’s that music; it’s the lighting; it’s the shooting. It’s all of that. It’s a genius, just genius.
For Mr. Crystal, the young actor who played Mike as an even younger – did you work with that actor at all, and how did you think he pulled it off?
BILLY CRYSTAL: I wasn’t even – I didn’t even know that that was in the movie ‘til I saw it. No, because I had filmed – I had recorded three different openings, so I wasn’t sure what they had used. The first version I did without John was I played my parents and Mike and his bored sister in the car – see, it’s funny – in the car, going to drop him off at college, something I guess we’ve all experienced at some point. So I wasn’t sure what was in the opening movie ‘til I saw that. I would love to meet him ‘cause he did a great job. It’s a beautiful sequence.
JOHN GOODMAN: I wonder if they animated that with what you did?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Oh, man, I would love to see that, yeah.
BILLY CRYSTAL: They were all great. I think they’re all terrific. Charlie Day’s character is really funny. Art. So Charlie was great. Sean Hayes is hilarious. That’s hilarious – the two-headed guy. Helen is terrifying. She’s really – I’ve worked with her before and she’s the most fun, hip, great, down-to-earth lady, and she’s really scary in this movie. They’re all – it’s great. It’s a very great cast.
Kinda continuing off of what you were saying, I was curious what you thought that Helen had brought to the movie and the kind of gravitas that she added?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Well, she’s aristocracy. She is Dame Helen, and she’s – I wish we also had been around her when she was working. She’s just fantastic. She gets it. She gets the – she’s a great actress, so it’s easy. She commands – even in a strangely animated woman – a dragon, whatever she is – there’s a regalness to her, and her voice is perfect. It was great casting.
So John, you gonna have another 14 this year or –
JOHN GOODMAN: It looks like I got three opening in a row here. It’s just the luck of the draw.
JOHN GOODMAN: Yeah, I’ll be back as an unemployed drifter soon.
Monsters University opens June 21. Check it out.