Pixar’s Lee Unkrich On His Love Of The Shining

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The Shining and Pixar may not seem like natural bedfellows. But Lee Unkrich – one of the studio's core directors (he co-helmed Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, and directed Toy Story 3) – is also the self-appointed 'Caretaker' of the fantastically exhaustive Shining blog TheOverlookHotel.com. Despite being hard at work on Pixar's Día de los Muertos film, he was happy to talk to Empire about the enormous impact The Shining has had on him in advance of The Shining documentary Room 237 coming out on October 26.

Click here to see Lee Unkrich's nods to The Shining in Toy Story 3

Lee unkrich

“I was 12 years old,” he says of his first viewing, when the film was released in 1980. “I was right at the tail of a stretch of time when I was really afraid to see horror films, because I had been taken to see a scary movie when I was in fifth grade that lead to a year of nightmares. It also happened to be the beginning of the whole slasher film era. Scary movies were on TV all the time, and I really wanted nothing to do with them after my bad experience. But my mom took me to see The Shining, I never asked her what she was thinking! A few times during the movie she turned to me and said, 'Are you ok, do you wanna stay?' But I was just riveted and absolutely did not want to leave the theatre.”

The Shining took hold of him, and never let him go. “I've thought a lot about why it obsesses me, and I think it's multi-tiered,” he says. “I think on one level it's because it was the film that got me interested in not only filmmaking, but also having a sense that there's a singular voice controlling the imagery that's being put on the screen. Also I think it was because it was the first film I saw that so pervasively had a specific mood to it. I'd never seen a movie that had made me feel so unsettled during the entire film. I think that's one of the main things that have caused it to live on for so many years, that Kubrick created such a pervasive feeling of dread. I've thought a lot about it and studied it, trying to understand how he did that. There's just this kind of tumbling inevitable feeling that I have when I'm watching the film, that no good can come of the situation. It's interesting, there's an entry on my website about this painting... there's a scene at the beginning of the film where Wendy and the doctor are having a sit down, examining Danny – in the original [longer] US version – and there's a painting on the wall as they're walking into the room, of a horse running along a train track towards an oncoming train. And it's pointed out that the painting evokes feelings of helplessness and inevitability, and that both parties are unknowingly headed towards disaster. I realised, thinking about that, that that's how I feel when I'm watching the film. Everyone has the best intentions going in, but there's just this feeling that no good can come of this situation that's about to unfold.”

Unkrich started his website for selfish reasons, he says, because he had a computer full of Shining material he wanted to back up and store in one place, but it's since become a wonderfully interactive resource. “I was hoping it would facilitate people coming out of the woodwork with things I hadn't seen,” he says, “and that's happened quite a bit, which has been just completely awesome. And it's also lead to me starting to think about doing a book on the making of the film. I've had email conversations with [Kubrick's exec producer] Jan Harlan to see if there's any interest. I'm hoping it can happen. I'm very busy making my movies, so that's one of the stopgaps, because I'd like to come over and interview a lot of people. Nobody's getting any younger, and a lot of people who worked on the film have unfortunately passed away already. But there are still a lot of people around, and I'd like there to be some kind of history.”

Stanley Kubrick shooting The Shining "I know I'm probably the most high profile fan, so that gets me a lot of attention. In my heart I am the biggest fan." Lee Unkrich Unkrich posts something on his site almost every day. It's a fully-fledged obsession. During a 2010 visit to London to promote Toy Story 3, he spent three days sifting through Shining material in the University of the Arts' comprehensive Stanley Kubrick Archive, which contains within its walls practically every Shining production artefact in existence... except for the stuff Unkrich himself has. “I've always been amazed at what I've been able to get my hands on,” he says. “I own Danny's Apollo 11 sweater. I don't know what I'm going to do with it – I had a costume conservator conserve it, the woman who does all the costume conservation for George Lucas, for all the Star Wars costumes in his archive. I also own the jacket that Scatman Crothers is wearing when he gets axed. I actually have one of the axes, which is fun. My kids say, 'Daddy don't ever kill us with an axe. Don't turn into Jack from The Shining.' Not that they've seen the film. Yet.”Is he the world's biggest fan? “I don't know,” he says. “I know I'm probably the most high profile fan, so that gets me a lot of attention. In my heart I am the biggest fan. But I'm not a crazy fan. I mean, you saw Room 237,” he says referring to some of the more crackpot theorists in the documentary, which he helped fund. “Some of them are absolutely far more obsessed with the film that I am, but obsessed in, I think, an unhealthy way. It irks me when people say the continuity errors are intentional. Analyse any film in that way, you'll find the same number of errors. The Shining shot for so long, and there were so many takes over the course of days and weeks, that invariably something's gonna get moved or overlooked. But when people go down that Alice In Wonderland rabbit hole, there's so much you know was intentional, it opens the floodgates of wanting to ascribe meaning to everything in the film.”

As well as shaping Unkrich as a filmmaker, The Shining has worked its way into many of his films. Particular music cues have been substantially inspired by The Shining soundtrack. “When I'm trying to evoke creepiness in a scene I tend to fall back on the feeling of the music Kubrick used,” he says. “There's something that [composer] Penderecki uses, a technique called kalinga, which is when the violin players tap their bows against the strings rather than strumming. It's almost a plucky sound. If everybody does that throughout the orchestra you get a crazy, almost insecty sound, it's so unsettling. We used that in Finding Nemo, there's a scene were Marlon and Dory come to a kind of imposing trench, and they don't know if they should go in or not, it's scary. And I asked [composer] Tom Newman to use that technique at that moment. I also used it somewhere in Toy Story 3, there's a creepy moment, I can't remember right now, maybe something with Big Baby, where I asked Randy [Newman] to do it. The orchestra never wants to do it, because it's not good for the strings and bows!”

And The Shining's influence on Unkrich's films doesn't stop at the music. “It made me really start to think about the way a certain composition, or the way the selective uses of colour, can make an audience feel, and those are things I now make use of in my films,” he says. “I try not to let any decision be arbitrary, from the colour of Andy's T-shirt in Toy Story 3 to any number of choices, they're all there for a reason. That all came from becoming obsessed with The Shining. You need something to guide your choices. Any film director or production designer will be making a million little choices, and do you want them to just be arbitrary choices, or do you want them to be based on some guiding principle? Even if it's a guiding principle that no one will ever be aware of. If you watch The Shining, your jaw drops when you see how very specifically the colour palette was limited, how certain colours are only used on certain characters all throughout the film. You see this red, white and blue all over Danny and Wendy in just about every scene. We can think about why it was done, and maybe we'll never know, but for me it's just confirmation that you've got a very meticulous filmmaker at work.”

Click here to see Lee Unkrich's nods to The Shining in Toy Story 3

The carpet pattern upstairs in Sid's house in Toy Story? Straight out of the Overlook Hotel, although Unkrich takes no credit for that (“I wish I could”), it being the work of production designer/fellow Shining fan Ralph Eggleston.

What he gladly takes credit for are the multiple references to the film in his own Toy Story 3. “On the garbage truck where Woody thinks the toys are being crushed, the licence plate says RM237,” he says.

“The security camera in Sunnyside Daycare, there's one shot where you're looking down at the room and you see a little nameplate and the model number's 'Overlook R237'."

"The PA system was modelled after the PA system in The Shining that's in Stuart Ullman's office. The tissue box near it also has a print Shining fans might recognise..."

"When Trixie the dinosaur is text-messaging her friend, his code is Velocistar237. And that wasn't just text on the screen, it ended up being a line Woody had to say, so it was very exciting for me to have Tom Hanks verbalise a Shining reference for me.” Presumably he explained the reference to Hanks? “No! I don't think I ever told him!”