John Lasseter returns to the director’s chair once again for the animated Pixar comedy, Cars. The movie revolves around Lightning McQueen, a hotshot rookie race car driven to succeed, that discovers that life is about the journey, not the finish line, when he finds himself unexpectedly detoured in the sleepy Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. On route across the country to the big Piston Cup Championship in California to compete against two seasoned pros, McQueen gets to know the town’s offbeat characters-including Sally, a snazzy 2002 Porsche, Doc Hudson, a 1951 Hudson Hornet with a mysterious past, and Mater, a rusty but trusty tow truck, who help him realize that there are more important things than trophies, fame and sponsorship. Lasseter talked to Paul Fischer
Question: When you make a decision to direct a movie again, what are the criteria for you to decide which movies you want to direct?
Lasseter: At Pixar, the movies are director driven. What I mean by that is that really the stories that the directors choose, they write and they come from their own heart. We’re the only studio that’s like that. All the other studios are executive-driven. The movies are picked by executives in development and directors are assigned to them, so in the case of me, I pick stuff I like, you know? It’s like “toys”… “Bugs”… “More toys” and now “Cars.” “Cars” was great. When I was making “Bug’s Life” I came up with the idea of doing something with cars. I grew up in Los Angeles. As you know, it’s car culture capitol. Cars are so important to everybody there, and my dad was a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership, so I’ve always loved cars. I was the exact right age when Hot Wheels came out in 1968. I’ve always loved Hot Wheels, so I also thought … at Pixar, we always choose the subject matter of our films that really lend itself to our medium of 3-D computer animation. I love matching the technology with the imagery in a way, and I thought that you’ve seen a lot of animated cars through the history of animation, but I thought we could really bring them alive with the chrome bumpers, the metal flake paint, the rubber tires, the glass, in a way that no one has seen it before. Just kind of feel like you can reach out and touch it. I thought this could be really something, something really special.
Question: All the other Pixar movies have been about worlds within our world. This was the first one that’s completely a different world. What are the differences or freedoms of doing that?
Lasseter: Well, early on… it was really just a choice of looking at cars being alive, and then we thought, “Well, we can either choose to tell a story with humans in it or do it without.” We thought that doing it without might be a bit more of a challenge, but we kinda thought that it could be more fun that way, and so we chose to develop the story as a world where cars are alive and there’s no humans. We had a lot of fun thinking what humans need and what cars need and try to find the parallels, and the obvious one is a restaurant to a human is like a gas station to a car, so it became one and the same. We tried to give it the feeling of both. Tire store to a car is like a men’s shoe store, right? I don’t know if you noticed that when Luigi had McQueen try on the tires that there’s a patch of asphalt in front of the mirror so you can see how good the tire looks on the asphalt. We have fun that way in really thinking through this world, so that was really… every movie is different in what we do. We don’t have these global thoughts of stuff, but that’s why we thought with this movie it would be fun to do it without humans.
Question: How did you get Paul Newman involved in the project?
Lasseter: Yeah. Well, in choosing voices for our movies, I always want really good actors, whose voices lend themselves to the character we’re trying to do. We never ask actors to put voices on, and I also love actors that can make a part their own. Adlibbing or whatever, because spontaneity is not something you normally find in an art form that takes four years to make something, where you craft something frame by frame by frame. But in the recording session, I always want the spontaneity, because I always love to make it feel unexpected or natural. So we called Paul Newman, because he was one of the greatest actors ever, but also his love of cars, and his love of auto racing. I thought that this is something where I’d really love to have him in the film. I wanted to have a lot of voices in the film from the automotive world of racing and outside of it and so on, and I thought he would be great. And I thought he could lend a lot to the character of Doc Hudson. It was far more than that. When we talked to him and he said “Yes” and we were finally working with him, he got so invested in this film because he really saw the dedication that I had to making this movie, not only a great story with great characters that entertained everybody, but the details of the racing world and the automotive world I wanted to get right. ‘Cause I personally have seen every movie about cars and racing and I love the subject-and even other subjects that I love-when you watch a movie that the filmmakers don’t do their homework, and it’s a subject that you like-like one statement of “Oh, that’s wrong” then all of a sudden, the entire movie has lost its credibility. I didn’t want that to happen with our film, so we got the details right. So he became actually one of my most valued sort of racing consultants. Every recording session we had with him, we would talk with him about racing, and he would talk and the passion that he talked about racing and the sport was so inspiring that it really helped evolve the character of Doc. And about scenes. And that scene where he’s finally talking about what happened to him, that really came out of these conversations that we had, and he helped with that scene so much, and all the terminology. In fact, if you see in the credits, I gave him a ‘racing consulting’ credit because his working with me was so valuable to me.
Question: After “Toy Story 2” you became more involved with the production side of it, going back to directing obviously takes up more time, so were you still able to oversee the other projects going on at Pixar?
Lasseter: Of all the things I do in my job, that’s the most challenging, so what I do, because directing a movie, you’re involved with every tiny little aspect. It’s really 110% of your time and focus, and so what I’ve done is I work very closely with Andrew Stanton, he’s like my right hand man at Pixar. Up until the recent merger with Disney, I was the Executive VP of Creative. I made him my VP of Creative, so he kind of helps out overseeing the other projects as I got so focused on my film, so we’d leapfrog that way. When he was making… I helped him make “Finding Nemo” and let him just stay focused on that, and I was overseeing “Monsters Inc”, “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles” and starting to develop “Cars.” We kinda do this, we work together this way at the studio. Early on, I wanted to make Pixar a place that more than just “John Lasseter makes a movie.” It’s a studio with really talented people and directors, and that was really important for us, so we made the choice after “Toy Story 2” that I was going to take some time to help develop the studio and these other directors. Meanwhile, I was developing my next project “Cars.” That’s why I started on December 1999, but I was sort of slowly developing it as all these other projects were being made, and now with the new thing… already, after “Cars,” I was going to take time to work with all the other directors, and we have more directors and more films to be made. That’s why it’s a natural thing with my new job working with Disney, I’ll be helping the directors down there, as well.
Question: How did the merger change things?
Lasseter: First of all, the merger isn’t going to change Pixar at all, because that was one of the parts of the deal and Bob Eiger recognizes how special Pixar is and it’s culture, and it’s really protected. It’s going to stay exactly the same. Ed (CAMEL?) and myself are going back and forth, so what our… basically, it’s simple. We’re going to go down for two days every week and I’m going to have my meetings down there. So then, I’ll be doing two days there, three days at Pixar, and we’ll just be going back and forth and I’ll be overseeing the projects down at Disney as well.
Question: At one point, they were ready to go on with Toy Story 3 without you. How nice is it to be able to take that back?
Lasseter: Yeah, you know I’m not really talking about Toy Story 3 right now, we’re concentrating on Cars and we’re talking about Cars.
Question: You mentioned how Paul brought a lot to the character. Can you talk about how some of the other voice actors brought themselves to it?
Lasseter: Yeah. Owen Wilson was phenomenal to work with. We wanted to… this character, the lead character had to be kind of… you know, he’s a young rookie who is extremely talented and successful and the success has gone to his head in the wrong way, and so… in some sense, I wanted to have an actor that can still make that really appealing, and that’s what Owen Wilson did so well. We always get actors to adlib and he’s so very smart and very talented. He’s a very talented screenwriter as well, knows story structure and is clever that way, and so I encouraged him to adlib and stuff. Early on, just when we settled onto the name “Lightning McQueen,” I thought well every boy is born into this world with his own set of sound effects. Right? Guys growing up… cars have a very different sound than a motorcycle, bombs, machine guns, flying like Superman, and all those sounds, and lightning and thunder, right? I had the tape rolling and so I said, “So, Owen, what was your sound for thunder growing up?” and he started going, “Kachow! Kachow! K-k-k-chow!” I was sitting in the room laughing so hard, and he gave me this whole series of these funny… but totally him. I would have never thought of that! And so then, we came up with the idea to start using that, like maybe the character would say it. Then it became… we kept adding it to the story reels and then we had the idea that maybe he’d have a lucky sticker and then we thought that if it was mylar, it could reflect light, and then of course, he thinks he’s cool picking up chicks by reflecting light into their eyes, right? So out of that came this idea, and then we told Owen about it the next time… “Just imagine it like sort of a lightning tattoo that you’re always… striking the pose.” And it just came out of that and became this catch phrase. And also my research, sort of into the whole NASCAR world, how everything is trademarked, right? And all this merchandise is sold with trademark, and I thought, “That Kachow! Would be a great phrase for this character, ” and it just grew out of this adlib he did.
Question: Can you talk about your family road trip and how this idea started?
Lasseter: Yes, thank you. This is a very personal story for me. I was working non-stop through the ’90s making “Toy Story”, “Bugs Life” and “Toy Story 2.” Each movie took about four years to make and I was starting one overlapping as I was finishing another. During this time, I also had four of my five sons, and by the end of “Toy Story 2” where we started to go into this period of me being this creative executive working with these other guys, my wife Nancy, bless her heart, was so supportive, and she kinda thought she was getting her husband back, you know, after this. “Oh, you’re not going to be directing now” and she just started seeing that no, my career is starting to do that. And she thought, “Be careful, John, one day you’re going to wake up and your boys will have gone off to college and you would have missed it.” And she was right. So I decided to take the summer of 2000, after “Toy Story 2” was completed, off. We bought a used motor home, piled all five boys, Nancy and I in it, and we went right out to the Pacific Coast, put our feet in the Pacific Ocean and we turned East. We had two months with no plan to get to the Atlantic, put our feet in the Atlantic and turn around and come back. And everybody thought we were nuts. “You’re going to be at each other’s throats.” But actually what happened is that we got so close as a family, and we loved it, and for the first time in my life, I started kind of thinking of just the day I was living, right then and there. I wasn’t even thinking what the next day was going to be, because honestly, we got on the road. “Where do you want to go? We’ll go this way” and we just went. And it became… and I got back from that journey and I had changed, and I said-cause I knew I was doing a movie about cars as a character, but I didn’t really know the story, and I wanted… finally, I said, “That’s what I want the story to be about, what I just learned” that the main character learns “the journey in life is a reward” about living kind of each day. You can have your career, you can have all this stuff, but it’s about having family and friends around you to just share in your ups and downs of your life.
Question: Except for Toy Story, there haven’t been any Pixar sequels. I’m curious is that something you just decided that you’d rather just move on and not do them? Or if one of the directors like Brad Bird wanted to do another “Incredibles,” you would do that.
Lasseter: Frankly, for us, it’s less of a business decision to do sequels, it’s more of a creative one. If we have a great story, we’ll do a sequel, but then frankly, after Toy Story 2, it was a bit of a business thing, because we had a deal with Disney for 5 movies and sequels didn’t count, so we wanted to make these films. So now, it’s like we’ll see. Now that we have this new deal, now that limitation is taken off of us, so when it… for us, it’s about telling a great story and entertaining our audience and making the movie just as great as possible.
Question: How do you see carrying that Pixar director-driven attitude over to Disney animation?
Lasseter: Right. Disney has been sort of an executive-driven studio for a long time, and I believe in having the directors really… there, the stories come from them, whether it’s something they wrote and they like and it comes from their heart, and surrounding them and being honest with them when things are working and not working, so that’s our plan, is to take that aspect of what we’ve been developing at Pixar and bringing it over and working with the great artists down there, and they are terrific artists.
Question: And how’s that going so far?
Lasseter: Terrific. It’s fantastic, and I’m really loving working with the guys.
Question: Can you talk about directing an actor like Paul Newman?
Lasseter: One of the challenges.. and Tom Hanks says this. Doing a voice in our movies was one of the hardest acting challenges that they had. On a live action film, they might do a page and a half of the script. In our thing, we come in and in four hours, we cover the whole movie. They go the whole arc of emotions, and cause we always record the dialogue before we do the animation, so they have nothing to look at. I bring in lots of art to put and we talk about it. So it’s important.. the way I work with them is first, I’ll talk about the scene, I’ll set it up, I’ll paint a picture in their heads of the things that they normally get when they’re on the set of whatever the mood, the lighting, the other actors, how far away they are, the ambient noise that’s going to be there, stuff like that. And try to place the scene in the movie of where they are in their arc and so on. I typically in chronological order of the movie as far as the scenes I do, to keep that acting arc going, with the exception…and I learned this very early on in Toy Story working with actors… every time they yell or raise their voice, I hold that to the end, because early on, I blew out one of the actors’ voices in the first scene and (does raspy voice) they started talking like this, and I went, “Oh, okay… I ruined that session.” So hold that stuff til the end. But one of the things that’s very interesting is that actors, there’s a natural rhythm that actors get into but one of the things I’ve found is that when you take away their face and when you do it with animation, everything needs to be sped up slightly as far as the energy you do and slightly louder. It’s just one of those things. If you just take regular talking and put it up, there’s something about.. the energy drops a little bit. It’s not about making a high energy film but it’s just one of these natural things I’ve found. So that’s one of the things that we’ll talk about, and I’ll say that right up front. Often times, if it’s a scene or a session where we’ve already some sessions with the actors, then I’ll make sure to show them stuff that we’ve done before. And when the energy is kind of low, I’ll show it to them and they’ll get it just like that.