As a prequel to Monsters Inc., Monsters University (out July 12) has a mix of characters you already know - Randall, Sully and Mike to name but three - and a whole heap of ones you don't. Speaking to director Dan Scanlon and producer Kori Rae about the new gang of scarers, we heard some fascinating insight into the Gruesome Twosome's new old buddies at their fraternity, Oozma Kappa, as well as titbits on the teaching staff and something called 'The Greek Council'...
Dan Scanlon: “We love them all, but I do love Don. Don is the mature student, returning to college to give life a second chance. The idea is that Don always wanted to be a scare student, but he gave up on his dream early and became a salesman working in the textile industry. So Don is the guy for whom life has passed by a little bit, he’s a little antiquated, and he’s come back to school ‘to learn the computers’ as Don calls it. He’s trying to find his place in the world, giving scaring another shot thanks to Mike and Sully.
“What I love about Don is that he looks like everybody’s dad, with the massive moustache and the horseshoe of shame on his balding head. Then there’s the Mid-West accent, which reminds me of growing up… There’s a bit of Ned Flanders there. An very early Walter White from Breaking Bad, maybe. It’s all subtext, but it’s pretty obvious Don will eventually become Heisenberg. Oh, and he’s got suction pads on his hands which stick to everything. Gotta love that.”
Kori Rae: “I love Art. What I love most about Art is that we don’t know anything about him – he’s just that crazy guy you knew in school. He is that guy. We don’t even know his surname. And his look, his design… I just love it because it matches his personality so well. Also, he loves butterflies. And sewers.”
Scanlon: “What I love about Art is that he was created out of thin air. It’s the worst way you should ever develop a character. We always try to create characters that fit into the movie to move the story forward, and we try to design the way they look to reflect their personality. With Art, well, he was born out of nothing, which I think is great every now and then. It’s hard to find spontaneity in animation, because everything can be planned perfectly, so I love that Art was created out of neglect.
“Because we kept thinking, ‘Who is this guy? We need a sixth member on this team… ‘ We really didn’t know much about him. We thought he might be New Agey, but not quite hippyish. I thought of him as a trucker who was really in to New Age stuff.
Rae: “That was the only direction you gave to the guys at the beginning. They were just… ‘What?’”
Scanlon: “I though it would be funny if there was a trucker who was like, 'Hey, howya doin’? You really gotta think about where your heart wants you to move in life.' He’d read all the books…
Rae: “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, that sort of thing.
Scanlon: “’Follow your soul song!’ That kind of guy. But that wasn’t much of a character, really. My wife named him, actually, because Art is both those things. One of our designers, Chris Sasaki, was tasked with designing him, and I didn’t give him much, and so he was frustrated and drew an ‘A’ and put eyes and a mouth on it. And we were like, ‘That’s cool, what’s that?’
“And the story artist, similarly, he didn’t really know how to write for him, so just to amuse themselves, the writers made jokes of the fact that he had no past and was sort of nothing, and this character – who we all grew to love – came out, and the best part was that he was a college character after all: the weird guy you didn’t know anything about, but was great at parties and played a lot of hacky sack.”
Scanlon: “Terri and Terry only originally existed as a double-headed duo as a joke that [writers] Dan Gerson and Robert L. Baird came up with. The line was, ‘You need six guys – that dude counts as one.’ So we thought that was funny, a two-headed monster… and now they’re in the rest of the movie.
“And that’s another example of an interesting problem becoming a fun solution, because what they then became was a little bit of a representation of Mike and Sully: two guys that don’t get along and need to work together. And then [voice actors] Dave Foley and Sean Hayes really helped create the angle, with one being more sardonic (Foley) and Terri with an I (Hayes) being more excitable, more attention-seeking, a… magician. I remember telling those guys that: ‘Dave, you’re more sardonic. Sean, you’re more exuberant.’ Sean says, ‘WHY DID YOU CAST ME!?” and Dave follows it up with, ‘Yeah. I have literally no idea.’"
Rae: “I think we honoured the Scott within all of us for this one.”
Scanlon: “Although Peter Sohn, who plays Scott, is in some way a bit of a Squishy. Peter is an artist at Pixar [and the inspiration for Russell from Up] – he has such a phenomenal, original voice and personality. Such a charming big kid. Both Squishy and Peter are very honest and sweet and huggable. Squishy’s more naïve than Peter would ever be, though.
“But in the case of Squishy, we wanted a monster who was very cute but could learn to become very scary. We wanted to show that scariness wasn’t about your size, necessarily, or even the way you look… it was a thing you either had or you didn’t. An intangible quality. We always say it’s like telling a joke: you can know all of the parts of the gag but if you’re not funny no-one will laugh. And that’s sort of where Mike lands. We wanted to make sure there was a character that was even cuter and smaller than Mike but still had that special something, so you couldn’t point one particular thing out about Mike. That’s where Squishy was developed.
“And we liked the idea that he was a college kid who was undeclared and unformed, because that’s a classic college thing. Then with his design we thought he should be an unmolded ball of clay, a forgettable look. People shouldn’t be noticing him a lot. I said to Ricky Nierva, the production designer, that he should be boring-looking. He should actually be a bad design of a character, the worst background character that was never supposed to be seen in the foreground. ‘I need a bad design,’ I said. Ricky said, ‘We don’t do that here.’”
Rae: “She’s a member of the Greek Council. Do we even know what the Greek Council is? That might be a little bit made up. But we do know that at schools, when they have fraternities and sororities, they have a leadership group, pooled from various members of the fraternities and sororities that make up the Greek Council. Hmm… I really could be making this up."
Scanlon: "Sounds good to me!"
Rae: "So she’s the Greek Council president, and I think we wanted her to be totally on the Goth side and not even interested in the Greek life at all. Like she lost a bet or something, or ran as a joke and then got nominated and won."
Scanlon: "And now she’s stuck with the Greek Council vice president, who is an uber-jock (voiced by Tyler Labine) and we just wanted to pair up this horribly matched duo. He’s constantly aggressive and yelling. The direction for the animators was that whenever you see this guy sitting down, he should be idling by breathing. He should look like a pitbull standing over food. Sometimes it’s fun to just watch him while she’s talking."
Scanlon: "Professor Knight is the freshman year scaring teacher, so we wanted him to be what you’d expect from a gym coach: aggressive, military… a drill sergeant. We needed an American accent from Alfred Molina, because THIS IS WHAT YOU EXPECT FROM A SCARING COACH. Molina really did a terrific job and chewing that up, really going over the top. He needed this toughness so we could play Helen Mirren, who plays Dean Hardscrabble, off him. She’s absolutely terrifying, by the way. Smart, calculating, very scary-looking. That’s Hardscrabble, not Helen Mirren, in case you were wondering."