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Cars 2 Set Visit: Empire Meets John Lasseter

Image for Cars 2 Set Visit: Empire Meets John Lasseter

Disney honcho and Pixar founder, John Lasseter’s return to directorial duties for the globe-trotting Cars 2 has been a labour of love – and not without its problems. Empire’s Olly Richards travelled to Pixar’s HQ in Emeryville, CA, the Greatest Workplace in the World™, to speak to Lasseter and the team who put Mater and Lightning McQueen back on the road.

Out of chaos can come creation. Some of the best Pixar films have been produced under conditions that probably left a fair few of its animators thinner in face and hair. Toy Story 2, Ratatouille and Toy Story 3 were all knocked to bits well into production and rebuilt from frame one, but when finally pushed into cinemas by their panting crew, were greeted with huge box office, critical plaudits and usually an Oscar. This is how you become the best, and Pixar is inarguably the best.

Pixar Headquarters

Empire is at Pixar on a very strange day. The building remains a place of joy – statues of beloved heroes like Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Mike and Sully smile from every corner. Beaming employees bustle through the airy atrium, an enormous space that welcomes in visitors like a hug. If you asked most people to describe the perfect place to work, they would probably give you some approximation of this. But today there is a frown somewhere in the happiest place on Earth. For the first time in the studio’s history it has put out a film that has been greeted with… a shrug. The reviews of Cars 2 are coming in and they’re by no means slams, but they are nonplussed. On Metacritic it has a score of 57, just about as nailed-on ‘okay’ as you can get. But nobody expects okay of Pixar, least of all anyone at Pixar.

John Lasseter, Pixar’s beloved father figure is the director of Cars 2. He is also Chief Creative Officer of Pixar, Chief Creative Officer of all Disney animation, and principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering, the studio’s theme park arm. He has, to put it mildly, a lot on his plate.

“I kind of have almost like four or five full time jobs. The hard part of my world is balancing all that. It’s difficult,” he says when Empire sits down with him in his office, a glass room crowded floor-to-ceiling with movie merchandise, a playroom for any age and, for someone, a bugger to dust. “As Chief Creative Officer, I’ll do Mondays at Pixar, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Disney, Thursday, Friday at Pixar and then with that we balance all the projects… Cars 2 is the first time I’ve directed in this new world and we had to rethink how I could direct”.

Cars 2 didn’t start out as a John Lasseter gig. When the movie was announced, it was set to be the debut of Brad Lewis, producer of Ratatouille, but Lasseter took over the wheel several months into production. Lewis retains co-director status (he has since left Pixar for Digital Domain). “The way I always looked at it was that we brought Brad in to help do a lot of the heavy lifting early on,” explains Lasseter. “I was overseeing three animation studios and I loved all the filmmakers there and wanted to help that, but I always was looking down the line at Cars 2 as something I wanted to work on, so I got Brad in because his knowledge of cars and racing was fantastic and he had this passion. I thought it would be great for him because he wanted to get into this and he loved this story that we had come up with”.

Pixar's John Lasseter

It’s clear that Cars 2 was something Lasseter had always wanted to make. Cars may not have been Pixar’s most popular film but it was always a passion project for its car-nut boss and the idea for a sequel began percolating right near the end of production on the first film: “We had developed a scene in Cars where Lightning McQueen takes Sally on a first date and originally it was to a drive-in movie theatre, because when I was a kid that was what you did on dates. And I always loved spy movies so we had them watching a spy movie about this guy called Finn McMissile. The scene changed in Cars but I never forgot that idea of a cool spy car with all the gadgets. Then I was doing the publicity tour for Cars around all these countries and had so much fun wondering what a car version of all these places would be. And then we did a junket in Spain in conjunction with the Spanish Grand Prix and it was just – ‘wow’. So it was those three elements.”

There have been other movies we started that weren’t right, but Newt was the only one we’d said we were working on. - - - - - -

If there’s one thing you can never fault Lasseter on it’s his passion. Listening to him talk about the movie, it’s hard to believe any of the accusations that Cars 2 was just a monetary exercise (the first film made billions from merchandising). As he gets going about what he loves in the movie, his hands fly all over the place, his eyes widen and his little round glasses slip down the bridge of his nose. He is a man who breathes filmmaking. He was so keen to make this movie work that he would spend his drive in to work reviewing scenes on his iPad, leaving voice notes for his crew, using an app specially created for him, because this was the only way to squeeze everything in. He is above all a filmmaker, the numerous awards that sit in a cabinet in Pixar’s reception proof that he’s a damn good one. But as well as a filmmaker, he is also now near the very top of a very large business. And at the point that work was getting under way on Cars 2 that business had a bit of a problem. There was a hole to be plugged in summer 2011.

Disney and Pixar, shortly after the former had acquired the latter, had announced that its summer 2011 animation would be Newt, a romantic comedy about two very rare lizards pushed together to breed. But Newt wasn’t working and was scrapped. “There have been other movies we started that weren’t right, but Newt was the only one we’d said we were working on – as they say, ‘announced’,” explains Lasseter when asked why the film was abandoned when others had been re-tooled from the ground upwards. “It was at the time of Disney buying Pixar and we had a big event in New York and it was sort of important to tell the world, ‘here are all these movies we’re making’. But it was very calm and sometimes you develop stuff and it doesn’t gel and you just put it back on the shelf”. But, nevertheless, the cancellation of Newt left Disney a tentpole short, and nobody likes a floppy tent.

“We had a year taken off the schedule,” says Denise Ream, who served as producer on Cars 2 after an associate producer gig on Up. “We did it [the animation] in one year. We were going to come out in 2012. Pixar films typically are done in four years and we did ours in three. Initially it was because the story was in pretty good shape and they thought, ‘Hey, let’s go for it’”. But was the movement governed by Newt’s termination? “Actually, it was because John was like, ‘We’ve got the story, let’s go!’ You know, certainly [Newt] didn’t help our situation, honestly.”

What followed was a year of frenzied production that tested the limits of Pixar’s team. But if there is any team in the whole of movie-making accustomed to switching gears as the film demands it is this one. “We knew early on, so we could set up for it,” says Ream. “We knew we would need a big crew and then we went on a very rigorous screening schedule. Typically, you screen the movie eight times, about every 14-16 weeks, in whatever condition it’s in, to get everyone’s notes. We stuck to a very strict 12-week schedule. So you’re basically boarding, doing temp sound, temp dialogue, tempt music, cut it together and then watch the whole thing and tear it apart. So we upped it to get the same process as every other film, but in a shorter time. You learn to be smarter”.

Cars 2

The production was helped by the fact that Cars 2 models are, relatively speaking, among the least complex from any of the movies. The animation of Mater the tow truck and Lightning McQueen is largely restricted to their face-cum-bonnet area. That means it can be completed much quicker. Fifty percent of Cars 2 animation was done in about four months. “You know, it stops you overworking things,” says Ream. “If something’s not working at 12 weeks it probably won’t work at 14, so you drop it. You’re tougher with yourself. Andrew Stanton’s motto was always ‘fail and fail fast’. That actually really helped us.”

If the film hasn’t been a critical success, or a particularly big box office smash, by Pixar standards (it’s looking unlikely to match Cars’ $462 million worldwide, let alone Toy Story 3’s $1.06 billion), everyone who worked on it is immensely proud of it and wouldn’t have let it out the door were it any other way. “Story absolutely comes first and we don’t release anything we’re not happy with,” reiterates Lasseter. And it’s almost certainly taught everyone some lessons in speed that they’ll need in the future…

On the day we’re at Pixar, the company has announced that it will release two films in 2013: the Monsters, Inc. sequel Monsters University, and one still to be named. Production won’t be getting any slower. When you’re the biggest in your field, there’s a point where you have to become even bigger to do everything you want to do.

“We’ve always wanted to do sequels,” says Lasseter about the growth. “It took us ten years to get to a place where we could do a movie a year without a drop in quality. We worked really hard for that. So now we said, ‘Okay, we want to do sequels again but we also don’t want to take away our original movies’. We love doing those. We want to be able to make originals and insert sequels as well. So the way we look at it is that we’re growing to three movies every two years. Some years there will be two Pixar movies; some years there will be one. But we don’t want to drop in quality, which is why we’ve grown from 900 employees to 1,200.”

Monsters Inc. 2013 will see Pixar deliver the sequel to Monsters Inc., Monsters University.The muted reception for Cars 2 could be just what Pixar needs. It takes the pressure off every movie to be a classic and there’s never anything wrong with giving a seemingly unstoppable force a re-energising kick up the bum. Pixar has never been a studio to take a knock badly. When an early version of Toy Story 2 fell short on expectations they rewrote the whole thing in a weekend, slashing their production time and making their lives infinitely more difficult. When Ratatouille’s ingredients weren’t harmonising, they changed director, despite the pain that entailed. They do their best work when the going gets toughest.

“Everything is about the movies,” says Lasseter. “Everything. Nothing’s about hitting a release date. We figure out the movie and then we work from there. We’ll never decide to do a sequel and then think of an idea. It’s always idea first. Always. Whether it’s a sequel or an original idea, it’s all about the idea.” It’s certainly hard to suggest that the projects in the pipeline show any resting on laurels. Pixar’s next film, Brave, is its first with a female lead and takes place in medieval Scotland – not things that set bean-counters’ eyes alight, but exactly the things Pixar spins into gold (see also: a grumpy widower in a floating house; a French rat who cooks). Even the prequel to Monsters, Inc., which takes the lead characters back to their college days, sounds sufficiently off-beat to evade accusations of cashing in. If Cars 2 is judged to be the film where they ‘failed fast’ don’t bet against them coming back even faster.

Cars 2 is in cinemas now.