Billy Crystal for “Monsters Inc.”

It seems that Billy Crystal was born to play the jocular Mike Wazowski in Monsters Inc. Having missed out on Toy Story, the brilliant comedian does wonders in this fitfully funny comic gem, revolving around the largest scare factory in the monster world where the top kid Scarer is James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), a huge, intimidating monster with blue fur, large purple spots and horns, known as “Sulley” to his friends. His Scare Assistant, best friend and roommate is Crystal’s Mike, a lime green, opinionated, feisty, one-eyed monster. Scaring children isn’t such an easy job, though-monsters believe children are toxic and that direct contact with them would be catastrophic. In this rare chat with Oscar’s favourite host, Crystal tells Paul Fischer some of the secrets behind Monsters, in his usual self-deprecating style.

Question: What made you want to do a kids’ movie?

Answer: I didn’t think of this as a kids’ movie when I did it. I thought it was great. The concept of it was fantastic. I knew the audience that would come to see this would be adults and kids and the older, wrinkled kids will love this movie too.

Question: Did you do a lot of improv in the recording studio that they couldn’t use?

Answer: Yeah but I thought they should have pushed a little bit more. I thought, in tone, it could have been a little edgier but when you see it you go, ‘this is joyful and great.’

Question: You and John (Goodman) were working together. That’s very rare in a voice session.

Answer: I kept pushing for it. I did the first two sessions alone and I didn’t like it. It was lonely and it was frustrating. And, you know Pete (Docter, the director) would say, could you give me one that’s. doing the same thing but now ask it as a question. And I would go ‘Why?’ like ‘I’m not doin’ this’. Now should I say ‘Should I do this? well, in case I change the scene. I said ‘Why don’t you get John in here? We’ll do it together and we can do everything you want but we’ll do it together. Then it’ll be natural. Then the editor won’t be the one who has to put it all together so it sounds real. It’ll just be real. Then we did it and it was great.

Question: Were you uncontrollable when you were working together? Would you go off on all sorts of tangents?

Answer: Good ones. As a director and an actor, I encourage improvisation but in character and in the moment of what it is. My guy I thought was free enough and wild enough to just do anything. And it’s up to them to pick the ones they want and use it. I kept saying to Pete, ‘No, go. It’s a little darker but at least have it. They why was everybody screaming and laughing in the control booth if you’re not gonna use it? You want me here, I’m gonna give ya’. It’s a smorgasbord. Take the ones that are good’.

Question: Did you fight for your character to have more than one eye?

Answer: No. I wanted him to have balls. We found out that he did in that one scene. Evidently something hurt. They don’t give you a thumb and they don’t give you balls. I don’t know which one I’d rather have because if you have balls and no thumb you can’t hold onto ‘um anyway.

Question: What about your own monsters when you were a kid and were did they hide?

Answer: Relatives and they hid in Brooklyn. I didn’t have a specific monster guy. I had generalized anxiety which is worse. I had fears of the dark, you know, I didn’t like being in the dark, I didn’t like seeing sounds bothered me. I had really good hearing and when you’re scared it gets heightened so you hear scratching noises or something. We’d had some burglaries in the area, always someone breaking in. That was the thing. If you’re home alone who’s gonna take care of you. Who’s gonna fend off the whatever it was. Just the unknown. It was a tiny little house. There wasn’t room for much. My room was in the back and I didn’t like the dark so I would say ‘Keep the light on’. I stopped doing that around two or three years ago. I keep the door open a little bit.

Question: Was this is Brooklyn?

Answer: No. Long Island.

Question: Was there a particular movie monster that may have scared you?

Answer: There were some pretty scary movies back then which now seem not as scary to some people But Psycho, as a kid, was just terrifying. Bambi, to a kid, was scary.

Question: Was there an animated film you were attached to?

Answer: Yeah, Pinocchio. It’s a great story, the little boy. You could relate to the kid. Jiminy Cricket was a phenomenal character. The epic animation, the whale, Cleo, all the other stuff that Disney was able to put in movies, amazing ideas. It’s still great. People are excited that Snow White came out on DVD.

Question: Someone calls you to do an animated movie. What do you do?

Answer: If it’s John Lassiter who calls me, I go where do I sign and when do I start? I loved this idea. They brought a piece, about 35, 40 seconds of him animated with my voice lines from My Giant I realized. ‘The size of the hero is determined by the size of the villain. Without Goliath, David is just some kid throwing rocks’. It was this over and over again with this guy talkin’ and movin’ his hands. Stuff like that and they told me the concept and brought some storyboards and paintings and Pete explained the movie and that was it. I just thought it was epic. And when I sat and saw the movie for the first time the other night, getting back to what you said before, the first thing that hit me hard in a great way was seeing Walt Disney Presents. It hit me hard and I went (takes in a breath) and my wife went ‘What’s the matter?’ and I went ‘This is big’. You have to eliminate Walt Disney company like we know it today. What it started out to be was what influenced me as a kid. My mother was the voice of Minnie Mouse for a little while in the Macy’s Day parades in New York. She would do the recordings of Minnie’s voice in the floats of Minnie coming down 5th Avenue with this big four story Minnie Mouse and my mother was Minnie’s voice. So I heard that but the movies, the Mouse Club. I remember, as a kid watching on our black and while set this big (indicates tiny) Walt with a hard hat ploughing Disneyland and putting up this entertainment land with its future highway. It looks like this guy is everybody’s uncle. To be part of the legacy of Snow White and Pinocchio and Old Yeller and Davy Crockett and the Mouse Club and Annette and now the Pixar movies which he would be thrilled about. When I saw ‘Walt Disney’ at the head of this movie, I got all excited to be part of that legacy.

Question: Weren’t you supposed to be in Toy Story?

Answer: Yeah. It just didn’t work out at the time. And then when John came with this one. I’ve seen the tests of me as Buzz Lightyear. They used lines from Harry Met Sally which was hysterical. First you see Buzz, then you see the lines were from the wagon wheel coffee table scene. ‘Someday, we’re gonna go 15 rounds over who’s gonna own this coffee table. This stupid, wagonwheel coffee table’ and it’s Buzz and then he walks away and the shot widened out and he was underneath the coffee table and you hear Bruno Kirby say, ‘I thought you liked it’ and little Buzz screams ‘I was being nice’. That was the test when they were sampling voices. I never knew this. They had taken lines and animated this little section which I have. It’s hilarious.

Question: Now that’s a good DVD addition.

Answer: Yeah but I’ve got to say though, I wasn’t right for it. Tim was fantastic in that character. He was appropriately vacant , really and the quality of his voice was so full of shit like those movie star guys are, those space guys. And he was perfect. This (pointing at stuffed toy of his character) is my guy.

Question: Who inspired you to be a comedian when you were growing up?

Answer: My brothers and my dad. My mom was really funny. She still is at 87. But, I’m the youngest. I’m the runt of the litter too. My dad was in the music business. My uncle, who passed away two months ago, was a legendary record producer, ‘Rock Around the Clock’, ‘Strange Fruit’, all of Billie Holiday’s stuff. My dad was a jazz producer. The label was a legendary label, a family business called the Commodore Jazz label. So, I grew up amongst jazz musicians. And so they were real funny, hip, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Louie Armstrong, all these guys were always around. I played clarinet but what was natural for me was to imitate them and make them laugh. Same with my relatives. The inspiration was this great group of 40 or 50 relatives sometimes for Thanksgiving or Passover or something and my brothers would just go up and make them laugh. It was also the timing of the ’50’s. There were also some great comedy shows on live TV. There was always a stand-up on Ed Sullivan on Sunday and my dad would bring home comedy albums from the store. We owned this little record store on 42nd Street and he knew we loved comedy. He had great taste and we were listening to sophisticated stuff when I was a kid. I didn’t know the Beatles stuff but I knew “The Two Thousand Year-Old Man” backwards and forwards or Stan Freeberg’s “America’ backwards and forwards. That was my thing.

Question: Given current event with kids being inundated both at home and at school, what does it mean to have this kind of film for kids to see at this point?

Answer: At ANY time this movie is a great movie. You know, now when it deals with fear and laughter and overcoming terror and all that stuff that’s obviously an added thing for them. But, this is a great enjoyment for everybody. What I love about the movie, at any time, is that families can go see it together and it should provoke thought and discussion about fear and about kids, you know sometimes when they’re afraid of something, they won’t tell their parents because they think something’s wrong with them. ‘I saw a monster and monsters aren’t real’. Sometimes they’ll run into the room and say ‘I saw a monster’ but, if they talk about it, maybe they won’t have so many.

Question: Did your kids do that?

Answer: I still do it.

Question: Did you see Shrek? I assume that and Monsters Inc. are in the running for the Oscar?

Answer: I think this is a worthy movie of any kind to me. I think Shrek was terrific. They’re just very different. The level of difficulty in this movie is extraordinary because of the story it has to tell and the levels of maturity to it. Shrek is a fantastic fable, really funny and it’s great too. They’re just different.