Angus MacLane interview: directing Finding Dory

The co-director of Finding Dory on making the film. Plus, he recommends an awful lot of movies to watch...

From working as an animator on A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2, through to directing shorts such as BURN-E and Toy Story Of Terror, Angus MacLane has worked his way up through his career at Pixar. So much so, that he’s now making his feature co-directing debut on Finding Dory, that lands in UK cinemas today.

He spared us some time for a chat – and it’s worth staying to the end where he starts firing out film recommendations….

I first spoke to you eight or nine years ago when you were talking about Wall-E, that you were supervising animator. And you told me then of an eight-year old who asked you a question about that film at a Q&A. And I do think children come up with great questions. You were asked: did you like the movie you made, and is it what you pictured when you started working on it?

It’s a really great question.

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I know. I stole it from a child.

[Laughs] The task of making this film was clearly defined as making a movie investigating Dory’s past, and making sure she was going to be okay after the end of this. So clearly, from the get go, that was the goal. None of us really knew what it was going to look like when it was done, but there was a clear parameter.

I think, for me, I’m so pleased that we were able to make her story work, so that the audience could understand her better, and we could deepen her back story, and have it resonate so much as it has with audiences.

For me, to the scope that I pictured, it’s definitely what I hoped for. The challenges weren’t the first challenges I’d pictured up front. They never are! You’re going into a movie knowing that the one before – Finding Nemo – was so loved. I could see why you could be so overwhelmed very quickly by the anticipation of the film. I found that very early on I had to put that aside and to try and make the best movie possible, independent from Finding Nemo. Every scene, every sequence in the whole movie, does it speak truth to the character and truth to the movie? That was the only way I could make it to be successful. Make the movie for yourself, but make the movie universal. In doing that, that was the only way to keep the steady path to telling Dory’s story.

I’m so pleased to see the reaction. It is a bit overwhelming, enjoying the success that it’s had.

As a parent, I actively seek out films for my children where there’s an imperfect central character, and that’s okay. Here, you’re dealing with short term memory loss as an issue, and it’s a very serious one. How do you go about addressing it, and dealing with it here? Whilst expanding the character of Dory, within parameters of what short term memory loss actually is?

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A lot of it was discovering what the boundaries are in terms of the character, and what short term memory loss was. Everything stemmed from telling her story.

There were a number of things we ran into with the movie where we needed to show the audience what Dory understood at any one point. She remembered what she was learning, and how she felt about that. It’s difficult to do with a character with short term memory loss.

There’s a number of things we do through the movie. We have a series of flashbacks where she remembers stuff. She states that she remembers something, and acts on that memory. Those things help define it. It comes down to her having her state that she needs to find her family, and she’ll do that. She’ll remind the audience that she’s aware of her goal.

Without that, there were earlier versions of the film where it’s always trial and error. But Dory, sometimes the short term memory loss was originally played for laughs. Ultimately though, we felt like we frustrated the audience, because they were ahead of Dory. There was a great deal of care in just crafting the narrative that ended up driving what we were doing. Is this going to communicate to the audience what she’s thinking, what she’s feeling? A lot of it was ordering of information. She learns that here, she uses that there.

The thing we discovered too was that she did not have long term memory loss. She had short term memory loss.

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And there’s emotional memory too?

Exactly, she has that. And that can be a bit ethereal until we tried to pin it down. There’s always a balance. Originally, there was a version of the film too where her parents also had short term memory loss. It was really frustrating for the audience though, because nobody could remember anything! It was comedic, but noone was remembering they were missing each other. There was no urgency to their goal.

How many versions of the film did it take to get the storytelling right and the detail right here?

Nine. Eight or nine is about the going rate now. Like the first film, this was required constant care and attention narratively. It was such a mix of things that made it work. The music, as it always does, is a bit of the narrative glue. The storytelling was a lot of throwing stuff at the wall, seeing what stuck, then removing as much as we could. I feel like the editing team led by Axel Geddes did a lot of reduction. How much do we need to tell the audience? How can we communicate this emotion as simply as possible? It’s very much trial and error.

What about you, then? Your journey over the past eight or nine years has been no less dramatic. When I spoke to you last, you’d just directed BURN-E, the short film based in the world of WALL-E. Then you’ve done Toy Story shorts, and directed those. And now you’re at a full feature. How do you think you’ve evolved as a filmmaker in that time? What did making those shorter films teach you that you didn’t know before?

I have been an animator for so many years, that I’ve seen it from that perspective. A lot of things are figured out, a lot of things aren’t. As I learned to do the shorts, it broadened my horizons to think about the larger challenges of storytelling that weren’t just character or scene-based, but film-based.

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I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity, partially by my own drive, but also by chances afforded to me by my mentors. Chiefly among them was Andrew Stanton, who was a real champion for most of my career at Pixar. Particular with BURN-E, when I went to him with the idea, and he said why don’t you make it into a short? He kept pushing me and affording me these opportunities. With each short film that I did, I was learning more.

Then doing the short films of increasing length allowed me to expand more into emotion and character. The Toy Story universe was one I was comfortable with. But I feel like I had a challenge to learn from, from BURN-E on, and it’s culminated in being a film director in this film. It’s a different set of challenges, as the scope is so much greater. And it’s based on a creative partnership that I’ve had with Andrew for over a decade there.

For someone who doesn’t quite get the parlance, you have a co-director credit, and Andrew’s is director. What’s the difference?

The director is the key creative driver for the film. A co-director is a creative partner. Every co-director is different, in the sense that each has a different specialty. I come from animation and story.

I was brought on very early in the process. He knew the value of co-director as he had basically been one for Toy Story. He wanted to make sure that there was someone who inherently understood his vision, and could communicate that to his crew. Andrew couldn’t be in two places at once. On top of that, the co-director is one of the key creative partners for the film. There’s the writer, the producer, head of story, myself, Andrew. There’s a group of us.

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Additionally, Andrew told me very early on, try and be a voice, somebody to turn to for advice. Be a deputy to his sheriff, a Robin to his Batman. Andrew’s sensibilities, he’s very much interested in strong emotion in his films, he’s very great at that. I think I’m very interested in the comedy of things, and there’s a great combination of the two of us pushing.

One of the real delights of interviewing you last time was that you were championing director Tom McCarthy, long before anyone else. Nearly a decade before Spotlight. Who, then, are the filmmakers who are impressing you now?

Jeremy Saulnier!

I loved Blue Ruin.

Green Room! If it’s possible to see it in a cinema I’d highly recommend it. I saw it twice, and I’m so excited about his work. I really liked Jose Padilha, who did Elite Squad and Elite Squad 2. I’m hoping for him to do more stuff in the States.

Do you have any smaller films to recommend? Your film recommendations are terrific.

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[Laughs] This is probably not appropriate for Dory! I really enjoyed The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared. Oh, oh, oh, and I love Jacques Audiard, who did Rust And Bone, The Beat My Heart Skipped and A Prophet.

I really like Snowpiercer too!

That’s not made it to the UK. Nobody has the UK rights. I even wrote to The Weinstein Company at one stage to see if they’d sell them to me!

Oh man! That one’s pretty cool.

The Wave, too. If you can see that on a big screen. It’s so character-based in such a familiar genre. I really like Bent Hamer, who did 1001 Grams and Kitchen Stories. And then I saw Breathe, directed by Melanie Laurent. That one’s so dark, but it’s wonderfully directed, and pretty exciting. But these movies are not for kids.

Green Room for me was film of the year though!

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Where does Finding Dory leave you as a filmmaker now? With every subsequent project you’ve taken, you’ve advanced more. Are there now stories you want to tell, that you want to develop into full features?

Yeah. I have a bunch of stories I’m interested in telling. A lot of it is figuring out timing. I’m going to have a lengthy break after this press tour and see where things go! I’ve been very fortunate to be given the opportunity to make movies that people enjoy. And to get to learn while I’m doing it? It’s really a dream come true.

Angus MacLane, thank you very much.

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