One of the biggest challenges for Monsters University was being a prequel. As director Dan Scanlon and producer Kori Rae acknowledge, the audience knows where the characters are going to end up, so the challenge was to turn the inevitable into a strength. And it’s fair to say they pulled it off. We talked to the two about the film and the challenges of making Monsters University in this exclusive interview.
Billy Crystal mentioned that John Lasseter walked up to him and said “we’re doing another one.” When did you two become involved?
Kori Rae: A little before that, about four or five years ago.
Dan Scanlon: We got together to see if there was an idea worth doing, something that we were excited about, because we had started thinking about those characters again. And John and Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton, a big group of us just brainstormed, and knew we wanted to do something with Mike and Sulley’s relationship a little bit more in this one, and that’s when we decided to go back and see the relationship form and that’s where the prequel idea came from. And then John came up to Billy at a birthday party. Or something.
When did you feel that you cracked it, when did you feel like “Yes, we can do this.”
Dan Scanlon: In the earliest form it was that we liked going back, we liked the entertainment of the college, but the real hook was when we started thinking about Mike’s story, the potential to tell a story about a character who doesn’t get everything they want in the end. It felt like something we hadn’t seen before but it also felt like something universal that everyone had dealt with, to have a dream change. And that was the part where thought “this seems different, this seems like a good emotional idea.”
And then after years and years of story misery, we had our ups and downs with, because with prequels you know the ending, but telling this particular story was good because knowing the ending at the beginning was helpful. We’re learning how much this dream means to this kid, but we know it’s not going to work out. So we felt like we cracked it near the end (laughs). We work on the story for so long, there’s never a moment like “we cracked it!” We always noodle over details.
Kori Rae: I think there was an internal screening probably about two and a half years in to the story process where we felt like “okay, at least we have a foothold.” We still had to work on some act two stuff, and more stuff, but we were like “okay, we know this is going to work.”
You have a hook, were you working backwards from that?
Dan Scanlon: Yeah. That’s what’s tricky about a prequel, is that’s how you have to structure your story, and wrap your brain around “how do we tell this.”
Not to speak ill of certain prequels that may have disappointed an entire nation of fanboys, but did you watch one of those movies to know what not to do? Did you try and avoid “Destiny?”
Dan Scanlon: We watched a lot of movies – and we do this a lot at Pixar – we watch movies that are in the genre, movies with similar themes, movies that inspire us, I think we probably watched some prequels, but there aren’t that many of them. It does get tough to find the classic prequel, because there hasn’t been a lot yet.
Well, it’s The Godfather Part II.
Dan Scanlon: Except that it isn’t. (laughs) Those are flashbacks. I thought that too and then I watched it again. They have characters that could die at the end, we don’t. I wish we had characters that could die at the end. Adding a character everyone would love and then kill them, just to say “you didn’t see that coming.”
And then he comes back as a robot or something.
Kori Rae: Exactly.
So you screened stuff in genre, it must have amusing when you’re watching college comedies, and see John Goodman in Revenge of the Nerds.
Dan Scanlon: I know, right?
I brought it up to him, and he said he was “A little loose” while making that movie.
Dan Scanlon: I don’t know what that means, but I think I know what that means.
The college comedy genre is clearly defined by National Lampoon’s Animal House – you pay a little homage to that with the broken guitar — but after that, other than Revenge of the Nerds, it’s a pretty terrible genre.
Dan Scanlon: It’s funny, the one thing we noticed is that they’re usually just fun movies, and the goals of the characters are to party as much as they possibly can, and there aren’t a lot with a lot of heart in them. And so that’s something we also felt like we had to create. “What is the heart of these films?” And I don’t know why because college is such a time of coming of age, and self-discovery, so I felt like there was stuff there, just not in those movies.
But slobs vs. snobs is always entertaining. With that central message, and I think it’s brilliant to put in a kids movie… “Hey you can know all you want about the Cleveland Browns, that doesn’t mean you can play for them.” Was there ever a problem with that?
Dan Scanlon: Surprisingly, not really. We knew doing that it could be a little controversial, people could misunderstand it and see it as a negative message for kids, but I’ve been happy that we haven’t run into that. People understand what we’re trying to say. It’s not a movie that says give up on your dreams, it’s a movie that says be open to other possibilities. Know that when things don’t work out, it’s not the end of the world. And it’s very common and can lead to better things.
For both of you, this is your first big assignment within Pixar, I watched the trailer for Dan’s film Tracy before coming here. Is that available anywhere?
Dan Scanlon: You can borrow a video cassette from me. It’s online.
What was the process of getting this project?
Kori Rae: I think Dan, having been at the heart of story on Cars and Toy Story 3, and then had gone out and made Tracy on the weekends while he was working in a key story role on both those films, so he worked closely with John and other directors, so they had confidence in his story chops, and any time someone’s making a movie on the weekends and finishes it over the course of five or six years, that’s someone who’s going to direct movies no matter what. That’s someone who’s driven to do it, so that’s important. You want someone like that who’s going to do it, not because they want the title, but because they have to. I think that’s what people saw, and I think Tracy was an important part of that.
Billy Crystal described you as a hipster.
Dan Scanlon: Yes, I don’t know why he says that. Maybe to Billy Crystal I am a hipster.
Well, he did make Parental Guidance, so perhaps he’s at that point now.
Dan Scanlon: That’s his thing, that’s become his nickname for me. I need to make up a nickname for him. (laughs)
When did you guys start on this project. It seems like at Pixar, you’re working on a lot of different things at once. When did this become priority one?
Kori Rae: The end of 2008, when we were really in development on story, early 2009, about four and a half years ago.
When do the actors start coming in? And how many times do you bring them back?
Kori Rae: We really don’t start casting until about two years into the project, because we’re writing the characters, we’re designing the characters and we do all of that – besides John and Billy and Randall (Steve Buscemi) – but everyone else didn’t come until later because they had to be developed and designed, and then we set about casting and find the right actors for the right part. John and Billy we certainly recorded over almost three years because they are the main characters and we started with them. We recorded with them, probably close to a dozen times.
Little revisions, here and there?
Kori Rae: Yeah, it keeps changing, and in a whole scene a line will change, and we have to get the whole thing again. It is painstaking.
Billy Crystal mentioned there was a different opening, did you have any other scrapped sequences?
Dan Scanlon: We had whole different versions of the movies, which is common at Pixar. We had probably whole other movies there somewhere.
Kori Rae: We had versions where Sulley was the main character. But Mike kept coming back.
What then was Sulley’s arc?
Dan Scanlon: He didn’t have one, that was the problem. Mike’s story was always there, he was the heart of the movie, and that’s when we realized it’s his movie. He’s clearly the person this movie’s about most.
Dan Scanlon: We have a great cast, they’re all great. I’m a huge Kids in the Hall fan, so to work with Dave Foley was a dream come true, Helen Mirren is just phenomenal, and working with her was so fun.
Kori Rae: Charlie Day’s Art, he’s just such a great comedic actor.
Dan Scanlon: A lot of the cast were fans of the first movie so they were in to being here and recording. And I think it shows in the movie that people are excited to be there.
Do you find that people with children are often more enthusiastic?
Dan Scanlon: That’s a good question. Not necessarily. Bobby Moynihan was very enthusiastic.
So what’s next for you guys?
Dan Scanlon: We don’t know.
Kori Rae: A vacation. We’ve had our hands full.
Monsters University opens June 21. Check it out.